Introduction - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)


Plants that “Dance with Humanity,” or Anthropochores

Our lives and those of all animals are entirely dependent on the green world of plants. In the Vedas of ancient India, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, wise seers wrote that plants feed us as mothers feed their children; or, to say the least, they care for us like wiser, elder siblings. What a different vision this is compared to a scientific worldview that reduces plants to physical, spiritless, and soulless protoplasmic structures! Anyone who asks people who still live close to nature—the last hunters and gatherers, shamans of indigenous tribes, or even long-time gardeners—about the nature of plant life will hear there is very much more to plants than meets the eye, much more than superficial and external observation reveals. They will probably even speak of a sentient plant soul, a conscious plant spirit, and tell us that, because this plant “spirit” or “soul” is not as obvious and does not express itself as overtly as human beings or animals do, we can only approach it in ways that are beyond the external senses. These plant friends will tell us that we can see deeply into the plant world with “inner senses.” When we are quiet and listen, we can see the plant world mirrored in our own inner world and we can learn from the plants; the plants themselves will show us about their deeper nature and their healing abilities. We can come to experience various plant species as mighty personalities, as wise beings that mediate between heaven and earth in their own particular way and that have a very, very long history—much longer than ours! A plant, even a garden vegetable, can definitely be a good friend, a benefactor, or even a guide into a beautiful parallel world.

Indigenous peoples who are intimately connected to their natural environment communicate with plants, as they do with animals, spirits, and gods. In the first book of the Bible we are told that the first human beings, Adam and Eve, talked to the other creatures. Shamans and native peoples who live in nature’s midst still have this ability even though modern circumstances—being submerged in all sorts of technology and living at a fast, usually machine-driven pace—make it difficult to find the quiet and inner peace to “hear” and communicate with nature and spirits. But we do not need to be shamans or mystically inclined to recognize plants as personalities. We can learn very much about plants by patiently observing them, for instance, while gardening. All that is necessary to develop appreciation for plants is plain and simple interest.

In this book we will explore the history and characteristics of many of the plants that we encounter in our daily lives: the plants we grow in vegetable gardens and consume with our meals. These are extremely friendly plants: anthropochores, as botanists call them—plants that “dance with humanity.”

From Wild Gardens to Plant Zoos

The vegetation that characterizes a landscape is typically an expression of the formative forces of altitude, the seasons, the climate, the bedrock and soil, and temperature and its fluctuations. The survival of aboriginal peoples everywhere was dependent on the immediate environment, the local plants and animals. The surrounding nature influenced and resonated with the folk customs, festivities, habits—even the spiritual views of the people.

Nowadays things are very different. We are not meshed with our natural surroundings in the same way. We witness continuing globalization in the supermarket, and even our modern gardens display a potpourri of plants originating from all over the world. In a single vegetable garden one may see, for example, Chinese cabbage originally from East Asia, tomatoes and beans from the jungle areas of South America, Jerusalem artichokes or “sun chokes,” from the North American prairie, eggplant from India, and okra from Africa. Many of them are giants compared to their original wild form; they have bigger cells and less cellulose than did their wild relatives, and most have lost their bitter or poisonous aspects, stickers, or thorns. Because they have given themselves over to human care, gardeners must indeed carefully tend to their needs; they must water them, protect them from being eaten by animals, and keep the comparatively more robust weeds from stifling them. And though this tending takes effort, most modern people believe that gardening is quite an improvement over hunting and gathering in the wild. They proudly point out that human beings have very successfully changed plant forms through breeding and selection in order to create optimal crops for themselves. But I sometimes wonder if plants did not “outsmart” us human beings. Did they “train” us to take care of them—and thus make it possible for them to thrive in places they never could have without our help?

According to cultural anthropologists and ethnobotanists, primitive hunters and gatherers had a more leisurely life than sedentary gardening populations did. Even the Shoshone or the bushmen in Africa, whose environments were dry or desert-like, worked not more than two hours a day to cover their daily food needs (Sahlins 1972)—and they still had a well-balanced diet. The whole countryside was their “garden,” the gods and nature spirits were the “gardeners.” The “harvest” meant the clan merrily swarmed out to gather whatever was ripe at the time. If they even occasionally planted anything themselves, thereby changing the digging stick into a dibble, it was usually in order to cultivate consciousness-changing (psychotropic) plants.

The ancestors of the northern Europeans were similar. Roman historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 AD) wrote in his work Germania (originally titled On the Origin and Situation of the Germanic Peoples) that the uncouth barbarians who lived in the forests north of the Alps were not interested in gardening:1 “For they strive not to bestow labour proportionable to the fertility and compass of their lands, by planting orchards, by enclosing meadows, by watering gardens. From the earth, corn [grain] only is exacted.” About their foods he wrote, “The meals are simple; wild fruit, fresh meat, or cottage cheese” (Tacitus 2012, 23, 26). Grains were preferably eaten as porridge or made into beer. “The Germani,” he wrote, “serve an extract of barley and rye as a beverage that somehow resembles an inferior wine.” The vegetables these people ate were mostly wild plants and herbs of the season, which were gathered in meadows or on the forest’s edge. The seeds of wild plants like plantain seeds, which are rich in protein, were also gathered as “grains.”2

Nonetheless, the women of these tribes north of the Alps did tend simple gardens, the so-called “leek gardens” (Anglo-Saxon leac-tún). All green, juicy plants that were strengthening, especially those believed to increase male potency, were referred to as “leeks” (Old Norse laukr). These gardens were fenced off with interwoven hazelnut and willow branches in order to keep out animals, which, for the most part, roamed freely. In addition to leeks these Alpine gardeners grew bear’s garlic, peas, Good King Henry (the leaves were used like spinach), lentils, rape, turnips, parsnips, chives, and chard. They also cultivated fruit trees, herbs and greens for seasoning and healing, and poppies for the seeds. The gardens could also have fiber and dyeing plants, such as hemp, linseed, reseda, and woad. It was only after contact with the Romans that the northern peoples developed a real garden culture where they cultivated new kinds of vegetables, such as field beans (or fava beans), red beets, and onions. As the northern cultures became Christianized and came under the reign of Charlemagne (742-814), ever more Mediterranean plants appeared in their gardens. After the discovery of America and the colonizing of many other parts of the world, numerous new and ever more varieties of vegetables came into gardens, settling into them as if nothing could be more natural.

In this book we will take a close look at most of our vegetables, and offer some recipes for whoever would like to try something new. It goes without saying that naturally, organically grown vegetables are the ones that can best unfold their qualities. Vegetables that have been artificially fertilized and doused with herbicides and pesticides, possibly also grown in greenhouses without direct exposure to the sun, moon, and stars, will not have the same full-bodied power as do naturally grown ones.

Food as Medicine: The Healing Power of Common and Rare Vegetables and Wild Plants

Just as cars need to be fueled, occasionally lubricated, and filled with antifreeze in the winter, the human being has to keep his or her bio machine regularly furnished with the right fuel. Despite general awareness regarding mass-produced “junk food,” some still claim that it does not matter whether the energy sources (carbohydrates and fats), body-builders (proteins) and supplements (vitamins and minerals) come from a fast-food hut, a gourmet restaurant, or an expensive natural health food store—claiming that all that matters is that all necessary nutritional building blocks are present in a balanced meal. According to this mechanistic view—which is, incidentally, still taught in the schools—the main nutritional focus is on the basic ingredients. Such a mechanistic view might work very well for machines, but is it an adequate explanation for the function and nature of living organisms?

A fundamental truth is forgotten in the flood of detailed information, in the elaborate charts showing nutritional values expressed in complicated weights and numbers, and in the often contradictory recommendations of experts. That truth: the food that gives life to animals and people consists of plant substance or, more specifically, of the energy of sunlight that plants absorb with the help of light-sensitive chlorophyll. Green leaves can be described as literal “light traps.” The sun’s radiant power enables plants to split the carbon dioxide that animals, microorganisms, and fungi exhale into its constituent elements: oxygen (O2) and carbon (C); and then to combine the carbon with water in order to synthesize it into energy-laden glucose, which is the basis of all organic molecules and the very foundation of all nourishment. By this process an estimated 200 billion tons of biomass are created yearly in the biosphere of our planet.

Aristotle and other ancient Greek philosophers spoke about primal matter as dark, amorphous ur-substance, as Chaos. By contrast, they defined Cosmos as the orderly, formative power of the heavens. When the instreaming cosmic light permeates Chaos, matter is shaped, formed, and harmonized, and becomes animated and alive.

By the above definition we can understand the role vegetation plays in the drama of creation. Plants are intermediaries. They mediate between heavenly Cosmos and material Chaos. They capture the energy of cosmic light, and use it to vitalize, inform, and animate raw, “nonliving” earthly matter consisting of the primordial elements fire, air, water, and earth. These vitalized elements, in turn, can serve as nourishment for all other living beings. (The harmonizing structuring influence of sunlight on living things can be seen, for example, when we observe how potatoes sprout in dark cellars: pale, deformed, and without direction, they twine about until they happen upon a beam of light coming through a crack; then suddenly the sprouts turn green, straighten up, and begin to grow in an orderly way.)

Illustration 2. San Bushmen (Basarwa): hunter and gatherer in nature’s garden

The moon and the planets also impart structuring impulses. When we eat grains, fruits, and vegetables that have grown in a natural way, i.e., in organic soil and natural sunlight, the structuring photonic energy is also transmitted to our bodies, which, in turn, affects our thoughts and feelings. Obviously, our inner world is not separated from our physical bodies; we are what we eat.

This wonderful process, which science calls photosynthesis, was interpreted in ancient India as a form of meditation: plant entities find themselves in a state of samadhi, the blissful state of deepest meditation and oneness with divine origin. Motionless, silent, and rooted in the earth, they surrender themselves completely to the sky and absorb with their green foliage the light that shines down from the sun, moon, and stars. They are thus in a constant state of divine and eternal harmony. According to the Upanishads, plants consume cosmic and stellar energies and, in turn, offer themselves for others to eat. “The creatures that live on the earth come into being through food; they live through food and finally they merge into food” (Anandavalli Upanishad). Whenever humans beings or animals satisfy their hunger with fruits, roots, leaves, stems, or seeds of a plant, quanta of cosmic light and warmth are converted not just into body warmth, but also into the warmth of feelings, the heat of passion, and at last the inward light of consciousness.

Ultimately, the Rishis and seers in old India interpreted the cosmic light that plants absorb as the shining light of divine love: “Brahma is food. Only he who realizes that he is eating God, truly eats” (Taittireya Upanishad). This cosmic light that the plants are constantly meditating on was also perceived as om, the primordial, all-pervasive sound emanating from the sun. This primordial light and sound divides, splits, and shatters into countless vibrations—which constitute cosmic harmony. According to these ancient seers, in each vibration a godly being, a deva (the spiritual entity that expresses itself in the plant),3 or angel, incarnates. In the vision of the seers, cosmic beings can enter the material world in the form of plants. Each kind of plant, each species, is a manifestation of a deva. When people prepare certain plants as meals, healing mixtures, or psychedelics, they make it possible for a certain deva to temporarily leave the macrocosm (external nature) and enter the human or animal microcosm. There it can unfold its properties. In the human microcosm these “angels” and “gods” manifest in various nuances as good health, moods, dreams, thoughts, intuition, and inspiration.

According to this old Vedic belief, even the spirits of the ancestors who wish to reincarnate on earth find their way from the beyond through the vegetables and grains eaten by the man and woman who will beget them. If things are really as the ancient Rishis claim, then it is not surprising how carefully most traditional peoples cultivate and prepare their food. It is not just a matter of assembling the necessary material nutrients: it is a matter of religion, of bonding with the gods, the ancestors, even with the godly Self. The Ayurvedic nutritional doctrine distinguishes three different characteristics (gunas) of nourishment, as follows:

1. Sattva: foods that are pure and full of cosmic light and also feed the soul with cosmic harmony. Such foods grow in wild nature or are cultivated in an organic vegetable garden. Honey, milk, and dairy products—from naturally held, healthy cows (cows that are free to enjoy sunlight and green pastures, and have not been maltreated with hormones and antibiotics, or had their horns removed)—also belong to this category. It is the proper food of those who meditate and live a quiet life.

2. Rajas: foods that further an active life, providing strength and energy. Meat and strong spices fall into this category. It is the nourishment of energetic and active people, including warriors and athletes. Onions, garlic, peppers, and tomatoes are all considered rajasic.

3. Tamas: foods that make the body sluggish and the spirit dull. For example, meat from animals that have not been well cared for and are terrified when slaughtered is considered tamasic (to the extreme). Also, vegetables raised under artificial lights and with the help of herbicides and pesticides are tamasic. These are the foodstuffs that sustain the low side of our nature—or even the demonic side. Most assuredly genetically “improved” foods fit into this category as well, since the cosmic influence has been interrupted and chaoticized; such degraded food can only communicate noncosmic information to our bodies.

To a large degree we have the freedom to choose what we eat and which influences we avail ourselves of. It is in our hands to determine whether angels (devas) or demons (rakshasas) enter our microcosm. Correctly understood, the food we eat has karma in store for us. With satvic food (i.e., pure and wholesome), we advance our spiritual development; with tamasic food (i.e., old, foul, or unpalatable), we do just the opposite: we promote pessimism, ignorance, laziness, criminal tendencies, and doubt.

Such insights are not unique to Asian cultures, however. There have often enough been voices in Western cultures that verify such maxims. “Show me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” said the French novelist and gastronomist, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826). In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar Cassius asks, regarding Caesar, “Now, in the name of all the gods at once, upon what meat does this our Caesar feed that he is grown so great?” In a lecture a few years ago, the Dutch artist and botanist Herman de Vries listed all the plants to whom he owes his personality and being. The lecture, consisting of nothing but plant names—from apple to zucchini—lasted a couple hours. He concluded, “These are the plants that I have eaten and that have made me who I am today.” And Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, once said, “We not only eat that which we see before our physical eyes, but we also eat the spiritual essence, which is hidden behind the physical manifestation.”

Illustration 3. Shiva, who harmoniously incorporates the three Ayurvedic characteristics (gunas) of nourishment—sattva, rajas, tamas

Each plant species, thus, has its own characteristic vibrations that are transmitted to the person who eats them. The elements, the soil, the water, and especially the sun are the basis of these vibrations. The formative forces are obvious: some plants prefer shade, others prefer direct sunlight; some like cool temperatures and others prefer the heat; some open their blossoms early in the morning, others late in the afternoon, and even some wait until after sunset.

We know that the sun has different qualities and effects depending on the time of year or the sign it is in. When it is in Scorpio, Sagittarius, or Capricorn, it is less powerful than when it is in Gemini, Cancer, or Leo. So called “short-day” plants—such as rice, millet, cotton, dahlia, Jerusalem artichoke, chrysanthemum, or soybean—blossom when the sun reaches Virgo and the days start to grow shorter than the nights. Long-day plants—such as carrots, cabbage, fava beans, beets, spinach, or lettuces—need, by contrast, more than twelve hours of sun each day in order to be able to blossom. For this reason, they never reach the blossom stage in the tropics.

Though most plants flower in the summer and bear fruit in the fall, some plants show curious shifts. Food plants, especially grains and fruits, are in harmonious unison with the yearly sun cycle and therefore have a harmonious and energizing effect on us. Plants that blossom in fall and winter, such as autumn crocus and helleborne, have fallen out of the cosmic rhythm—so much so they often prove to have a poisonous, destructive effect on our body rhythms. Under certain circumstances, however, these kinds of plants can be used medicinally, such as to bring on a severe somatic reaction.

The daily cycle is also important for plants. The light spectrum varies with the movement of the sun across the sky. Thus, its effect on the vegetation is different in the early morning hours than it is at other times of day. Plants go into sleep or wake positions, and flowers open or close their buds, or emanate their fragrance or not—all depending on the position of the sun. Traditional herb gatherers and gardeners know this and harvest accordingly. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) planted a floral clock in his garden in Uppsala that was based on this principal; he could tell the exact time of day with it. Similarly there are also “fragrance clocks.”

Vegetation is also influenced by its location, especially in terms of its longitude and latitude and the angle of the sunrays hitting it. German poet and plant enthusiast Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) recognized this on his extensive trip to Italy in the late eighteenth century, where he noted that familiar plants growing there looked very different from those in his homeland. More subtle influences are also at work in plant expression, such as conjunctions, oppositions, trigons (triangle constellations), and the position of the moon and the other planets. Indeed, alchemists and medieval doctors drew up entire plant taxonomies on the basis of planetary signatures. By keenly observing the physiognomy of the plants, they recognized which planetary forces—or even which planetary gods—were at work in the respective plant. According to this classification, for example, the red beet was described as belonging to Mars, with a tinge of Jupiter and Saturn involved. The swallowwort or greater celandine, which contains yellow juice that tastes like bile, was ascribed to Jupiter, whose organ is the liver. The sedative effect of this juice was attributed to a slight lunar (Moon) influence. Herbs rich in mucilage, like the mallow or comfrey (Symphytum), belonged to Mercury, though, as a bone healer, comfrey was also associated with Saturn. All told, what to us may seem to be a mere expression of superstition was in fact once a useful astrological system of plant classification, one that unfortunately has not survived to today.

Shamanistic Food

We have seen that each plant species has its own specific relationship to the cosmic formative forces manifested in the instreaming light. Each species absorbs a different quality of this light, building it into its cells and tissues along the process of developing its full capacity as, say, a plant for healing, or dyeing, or eating. Philosophers and keen plant observers from many different cultures have concluded that each plant species has its own energies and its own influence on our soul and spirit. For this reason shamans, ascetics (called “sadhus” in India), and medicine people are careful to not reduce their diet to a limited plant assortment—and especially not to just what the supermarket shelf has to offer. On the contrary, they very consciously consume a wide spectrum of herbs and vegetables, because they know that a very diverse diet provides a wider spectrum of “information,” which makes them more perceptive, more alive, and more healthy.

Anthropological studies indicate the universality of the belief—which is actually more an inner experience than a belief—that each kind of food causes a specific resonance or “attunement” in whoever eats it.

Seasonal, Local Vegetable Foods: If human beings eat what grows in their immediate and natural environment with each season, they will be better able to tune into the invisible and subtle forces that are at work in their ecotope. Such a diet connects with the “spirit” of the land, allowing them to live in harmony with it. This is very important for shamans, who believe that many human diseases result from angered local nature spirits or animals. As such, if we are in tune with our surroundings, we are less likely to be afflicted by the ailments that could befall us.

Ancestral Foods: If people eat the food their ancestors ate (some might call this “soul food”), they will be able to tune into their ancestral spirits, receiving their inspiration and intuition. It is important to be reconciled with our ancestors, who live on in our psyche whether we are conscious of it or not, as this alignment influences our spiritual and physical health. For example, consider how the modern Japanese maintain this tradition. Though they could import less expensive rice, they eat only their own traditional rice. Rice symbolizes a direct connection to their ancestors: each household and Shinto temple offers sake and rice to the ancestors and the gods who, in return, send health, fertility, and vitality. Another example: Dr. D. C. Jarvis, author of the best-selling Folk Medicine, advises his fellow New Englanders to eat rye bread, oatmeal, and herring in order to maintain their cultural ethos and stay healthy.

The peasant philosopher Arthur Hermes (1890-1986), who taught me so much about these things, made these insights a cornerstone of his life. His garden, which became ever more jungle-like as the summer advanced, had a fantastic variety of vegetables, including rare and formally “extinct” varieties. He talked to the plants, speaking to them in a loud voice as naturally as he did with people. In his cosmology each kind of plant represented a spiritual entity. He sowed and planted in harmony with the stars. Plants meant to develop strong roots, such as carrots and celeriac, were sown and planted when the moon was in an earth sign. Plants that should bring forth fruit and seeds, such as broccoli and sunflowers, were sown and planted when the moon was in a fire sign. Cabbage and leafy vegetables were put in the ground when the moon was in a watery sign, so they would grow lushly. For fertilizer he used only compost, homemade liquid manure (made from nettle or comfrey), and ashes from his wooden fire (in which he burnt nothing unnatural). He never used artificial fertilizer, and often repeated:

Vegetables that have been pepped up with artificial fertilizer weigh more; they are more waterlogged, which is more interesting for sale by the pound, but they have less divine light-energy. Light has no weight, but it makes the difference in such qualities as nutritive value, natural storage life, and the ability to reproduce. Artificially grown vegetables cannot give us the strength we need in order to think profoundly and with true insight. Such foods have been desensitized to the inherent order they would otherwise assimilate through cosmic light. They also contribute to our own desensitization to cosmic order when we eat them.

He also emphasized, “Sun! The plants need a lot of sunshine! Not only the sun in the sky, but also the ‘sun’ that shines in our hearts.” This “inner sun” consists of the loving thoughts and the tender care we bestow upon the plants. Our interest, our admiration for their beauty, and our appreciation of their fragrance together constitute a kind of “spiritual fertilizer.”

Arthur Hermes’s garden did not stop at the end of the garden beds; instead it continued on over the hedge and into the nearby meadows and fields where he collected wild plants and herbs for salads and soups. (This approach is similar to the gardening practices of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.) In his universe “weeds” did not exist; all plants were useful as food, seasoning, or healing. All were the gift of Mother Earth. He valued especially the virtues of these wild plants, and spent time meditating their effect on body and soul. Like a shaman—or a homeopathic doctor testing the healing properties of various plants—he gained new and valuable insights through his meditation: one kind of plant “cools,” another kind “warms”; this plant stimulates digestion, and that plant tones tissue; yet another plant is astringent or calming, and so on.

Illustration 4. Sami shaman, Lapland (Johannes Sheffer, A History of Lapland, 1673)

Another figure who made sure to eat as many wild plants as possible was Bill Tall Bull, medicine man of the Tsistsistas (Cheyenne). He sees each plant, just like each human being, as having four “souls.” To his mind the bloated crops that grow in the white man’s fields have only three, or sometimes merely two, such souls. Commercial agricultural crops that manage to survive only due to herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and artificial irrigation are remarkably weak, entirely inadequate for nourishing all four souls of the human being. Whoever eats only such inferior foods will inevitably become dull; though such a person can still function, their finer senses will atrophy. For this reason, according to the old Cheyenne, civilized modern people have no more visions; they cannot understand the language of the animals, or the language of the spirits.

If Arthur Hermes and the old Cheyenne medicine man are right, then the tidings don’t bode well for modern humanity. Ethnobotanists tell us that the majority of us derive our sustenance from less than a dozen kinds of domesticated plants. The four most important sources of carbohydrates—wheat, rice, corn, and potatoes—feed more people than the next twenty-six carbohydrate-rich plant species added together, and 90 percent of the earth’s population nourishes itself mainly from only twenty plant species. The average American here in the U.S. eats thirty plant species per year and less than fifty in his or her entire life—and that despite the fact that fifteen thousand edible plants grow in the United States (Hartmann, 2000, 58). And as the range of vegetables becomes ever smaller, the packaging becomes ever more colorful and varied. In the last few decades, international oil corporations have bought out most of the smaller independent seed producers. They have since standardized the seeds they cultivate; in doing so they have reduced genetic variety for their economic benefit at the expense of our nutritional benefit—essentially, to our own detriment.

The foodplants that keep us alive have traditionally always had a religious mystique to them. Many food taboos and food preferences are part of one’s cultural identity; for instance: the strict vegetarianism of the Indian Jains, the ban on eating meat or beans by the Pythagoreans, or the kosher rules of the Orthodox Jews. Our industrialized refined foodstuffs—TV dinners, microwave meals, fast food, and all the mass-produced, artificially fertilized, pest-controlled, globally transported and genetically “improved” agricultural products—all have their cultural effects too. How? Their consumption supports the officially sanctioned positivistic, materialistic ideology that permeates our society, as these industrial products are hardly capable of opening our spirits to the subtle dimensions of our existence. Fast food and designer foods hamper communication with nature spirits, ancestral spirits, angels, and plant devas, such as are known—according to anthropologists—to traditional cultures all over the world. It follows, then, that anyone interested in opening “chakras” or in maintaining a spiritual view should become aware of this dimension of food. Naturally grown vegetables and wild plants as part of the diet will be helpful, even essential, in such quests. But then again, most people are afraid of such openness.

The Garden

Most full-blooded gardeners have a sort of magical charisma about them. Indeed, gardens themselves are magical places. Despite the popularity of science and agricultural chemicals, many gardeners still plant according to the moon and “talk” to their plants. They like to brew strange liquid manures and place terra cotta figures of gnomes, dwarves, or elves in their gardens, claiming that these give visible expression to invisible elemental forces that help the plants grow and flourish. Gardens are usually fenced off from “the rest of the world,” and pathways often lead to a well or a megalith that symbolizes the heart of the garden.

Gardens, vegetable gardens included, reflect the inner character of the gardener and how he or she relates to nature. An old saying goes, “Show me your garden, and I will tell you who you are.” In their work gardeners project their souls into their garden, creating, according to Arthur Hermes, a haven for elemental beings and devas. The sight of such a garden can touch the heart of the observer and elicit liberating gasps of appreciation. A well-tended garden pleasantly astonishes, with both its beauty and its healing potential.

Vegetable gardens, like ornamental gardens or parks, ought to be esthetic places, full of blossoms attracting butterflies and songbirds alike. But the intention isn’t just for show; in this there is ecological and even utilitarian value as well. The nectar of the flowers, for example, lures hovering flies that devour aphids (plant lice); links such as this contribute to a vibrant, hardy ecosystem.

One way to look at a vegetable garden is to see it as a “landing site” for beings of another (spiritual) dimension to manifest themselves. In harmony with the sun’s yearly cycle, the plant beings take on a physical body, grow, go to seed, and disappear again when winter comes. Of course, this is an unusual, rather poetic perspective, but it’s also a shared one. Many native horticultural societies have similar views, seeing gardens as places where heavenly beings incarnate in the form of food plants, thus sacrificing themselves so that humans might live. Anthropologists speak in this regard of the “Hainuwele Complex,” a concept derived from native horticultural societies in West Ceram, Melanesia. Their myth tells of a heavenly girl named Hainuwele, a goddess, who came down from heaven to visit the earliest humans. During a dancing festival they sacrificed, dismembered, and buried her in the moist earth. Each body part turned into an edible plant. The Iroquois tell a similar tale. Three divine maidens turned into corn, beans, and pumpkins after they fell from the heavens onto the earth. Similar concepts were held by Neolithic Europeans, who saw in their staple crops the sacrifice of the children of the Earth Goddess. At its core even Christianity contains the ancient belief of the sacrifice of the solar divinity and his resurrection into bread and wine.

Illustration 5. Gardener on an old woodcarving

For full-fledged materialists, tales such as these are nothing but superstitious nonsense. But whoever has dealt with plants intensively knows they are very much more than scientific botany—which restricts itself to only external empirical data—can explain. Plants are, as the great plant enthusiast Goethe declared, both sensory and extrasensory beings. They can “talk” to our souls; they can communicate with us in our dreams. They have a very long history of interaction with human beings. The garden vegetables readily lend themselves to being interpreted as plant devas, ones especially friendly to humans.

The Healing Power of Vegetables

The commonly known vegetable plants in our gardens are much more than just primitive life forms capable of producing and storing various carbohydrates, proteins, and compounds that feed and heal us. Plants, be they incarnations of devas or not, have a long history of interaction with our culture. As Richard Grossinger aptly declared in Planet Medicine in regard to curative herbs, plants do not just have a botanical identity; each also has a cultural and linguistic identity inseparable from its medical qualities (1990, 33). This is just as true for the vegetables in our gardens. From one generation to the next, traditional kitchen knowledge is passed on regarding both the nutritional and healing aspects of the garden’s produce. For example, women cooked celeriac and served it to their men in order to activate their sexual prowess. Borrage was used to create a cheerful mood as well as for flavoring, and lettuce was cooked to calm members of the household. In other words, gardens were apothecaries full of tried and true cures.

Illustration 6. The joy of gardening

Each vegetable, each herb, even each flower and “weed” can be a healing plant. Each plant that we consume, if correctly prepared, affects our body and how we feel. And as far as our inward bodily balance is concerned, each plant tips the scale in one way or the other. Plants that appeal to us personally deserve our special attention; we should get to know them well, as we never know what we may discover within them.

Join me in getting to know the aphrodisiacal and healing properties, folk tales, garden tips, and recipes of the curious collection of vegetables to be found in these pages.


Since classical antiquity herbalists and gardeners have practiced planetary classification. They categorized plants according to both external characteristics and “signatures”—such as firmness, appearance, and color, as well as the plants’ preferred locale—and to inner characteristics like flavor and the physical and mental effect on those who consume them. These herbalists and gardeners then related these impressions to the seven visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon. (Note that this calculation of “seven” deems the moon a planet, though we classify it as our planet’s natural satellite. And as for Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto: as they weren’t yet visible, and were thus unknown, they were not part of the astrology of the time.) This volume will use the traditional classification. (More can be read on the subject in my book, Culture and Horticulure: A Philosophy of Gardening.) And while each plant obviously has all seven planets at work in it, one planet usually predominates with greater influence. Plus, note that when different authorities discussing a certain plant emphasize one planet more than others, this often concerns a specific use or purpose. For example, a doctor might emphasize one aspect of a plant more than would the gardener, the philosopher, or the dye master—as all have their own special areas of interest.

Illustration 7. Meals are sacred rituals celebrating life (late-nineteenth-century print)