1. How did you first come to working with plants?
I’ve been chronically ill since I was 6. I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis and a few years later I got a Fibromyalgia diagnosis on top of that. When I began bleeding at 13, my body continued to communicate with me the best way it knew how, and I had terrible cramps from the first period on. I’d have to call out of school, I’d throw up, I’d cry and barely get out of bed. I also was just generally was sickly throughout high school and young adulthood, frequent sinus infections, strep throat and then the candida years (don’t get me started lol)
All through childhood, I saw a lot of Doctors that poked and prodded and taught on my body, I took lots of serious medications, and struggled to feel heard and clearly communicated to.
After I graduated college I was frustrated with western medicine and I began to go to the local herb shop and play around and explore plant medicine. I bought books and just started reading and learning and experimenting. That was the start of what has been a very healing, special, ongoing, exciting learning process/ relationship with plants. That was around 15 years ago!
2. How do your experiences and identities shape your work with plants and herbalism?
When I began playing around with dried herbs and making tea, it felt intuitive in some ways. Many years later, my mom told me that my great grandfather was a Root Man.
I think that there are a lot of ways that many Black Americans have had a sort of spiritual severance from working with the land from the trauma experienced from chattel slavery, sharecropping, and being disposessed of their land (still happening now). So as a Black American, it feels important and healing to my ancestral lineage to work with plants and plant medicine and to share what I’m learning. I pray and talk to my great great grandfather and I feel like he guides me and has played an important role in the ways that working with plant medicine feels natural and intuitive to me.
As a chronically ill person, it feels empowering to take my health into my own hands, to realize the ways that we can take care of ourselves and each other.
The statistics around how Black women are treated within the medical industrial complex are disgusting and heartbreaking. Healthcare is horrible in this country and becomes less and less accessible. I think that it’s imperative, that everyone but Black people in particular, continue the legacies of our handed down medicine.
Plus plants are queer and so am I :)
3. What kinds of lenses and frameworks do you bring to the way you work with herbs and offer them to your communities?
I want to say many things here but I’m just going to say two, because I really know how to ramble.
It’s important to me to remember and uphold and remind myself and others, that we all have so much knowledge about our bodies and about what plants and foods our bodies like, and we all come from people who’ve had relationships with plants and used them for medicine. It makes me feel very uncomfortable to present myself as a teacher, unilaterally disseminating information. We all have a wealth of knowledge that is valuable for our own and our collective healing. I want to uphold that in all the healing spaces I am in and that I create. Sometimes, in plant nerd circles, it can feel like there’s this unspoken competition to prove who knows the most, all while presenting a ‘I am very humble, grounded and spiritual and together’ vibe. I catch myself getting into that mode sometimes and I HATE it lol!
As a friend of mine said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Everyone wants to be Harry Potter, but we need to be a a school of fish or a flock of birds, moving and learning together, helping each other get to the world we want to see ’
So yeah it’s very important for me to learn and share information in a way that acknowledges that we all have a lot to learn from each other.
Second thing! When I first started getting into plant medicine, I became like a natural medicine purist. I swore I’d never go to the doctor again unless I was gravely ill. I low-key looked down my nose at people who chose to take antibiotics etc. And you know what? I didn’t go to the doctor. for a long time and I treated my UTI’s and lung/sinus infections etc with herbs.
And then like 8 years later, I found out I had two large masses that had been growing in my pelvic area for who knows how long and that the had caused critical damage to my kidneys. I was forced to come to a middle ground in terms of plant medicine and allopathic medicine. Don’t get me wrong, there is soo soo much wrong with the Medical Industrial Complex and with pharmaceutical companies, and sometimes I low key hate doctors because I have had so many bad, dangerous experiences with them mistreating me and my loved ones. BUT, that type of medicine is really good at some things and is necessary sometimes for people. And beyond that, I want people to do what feels good to them and brings them relief, what helps them, and what they feel good about doing. I don’t want to ever shame some body for taking medications or going to the doctor. And it makes me very angry the ways that I see that happen subtly and not so subtly in some herbalist circles. Life is too short for false binary ideas around purity, plus bodily autonomy is where it’s at! I want to use plant medicine to encourage that! Not shame people. Sure there’s some tricky lines we have to walk when working with people, and trying to support them in moving away from stuff that doesn’t serve them. But I don’t think it should ever look like limiting choices for what can improve someone’s quality of life. And it always needs to be a conversation with the person being treated that centers their desires and knowledge of their own body.
4. Wanna tell us about some of your favorite plants and why?
My first plant love was lemon balm. She brings such lightness and optimism and soothing to me. I’ve always struggled a lot with depression and anxiety and lemon balm has been a great ally for that.
I will forever love nettles (I’m a big fan of easy to grow, accessible, low contraindication, herbs). It feels like nettles is almost always a part of the solution for whatever I need and when I drink it, I feel a cozy held feeling in my heart.
Like many people right now, I’m obsessed with tulsi! I can very much clearly feel the ways that this plant supports my stress responses and I’m so so grateful for that.
Now I’m just gonna list a couple others!: lavender, chamomile, alfalfa, damiana..
Lemongrass! I’m very much obsessed with lemongrass right now. It grows easily where I live here in LA, and I’m learning so much about it. It’s so helpful for depression and stomach issues. I am very prone to stomach issues and have a lot of food sensitivities. Lemongrass stimulates my lagging appetite just by smelling it and it heals my sometimes occasional , sometimes frequent after eating stomach aches almost instantly.
Rose… Gotu Kola is a new fave that I’ve been getting to know..
I could go on and on but those are some of the herb besties right now.
I'm so grateful for plants and all that they share with us and I continue to be so excited to get to know them more for the dynamic beings they step and to learn to reciprocate their care.
Melanie Griffin is a Queer Black artist and herbalist from Virginia, who now resides in LA. She is an ardent believer and lover of plant medicine, plant magic, and healing justice. The intersection of social practice, social justice, and healing is where her heart lies. Through her experiences with chronic illness, Melanie was moved to begin studying herbalism after becoming frustrated with the limitations of allopathic/ western medicine. She began studying herbalism on her own and in formal settings over 15 years ago and is excited to keep on learnin.
After drawing connections between the medical industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and systemic racism, she became impassioned about how wellness practices and mutual care can be used in the fights for liberation and abolition. As the Deputy Director of Health and Wellness at Dignity and Power Now, Melanie works to support those affected by incarceration with different healing modalities. As an artist, she uses textiles, multimedia works, writing, and performance/ritual/magic to explore ideas around home, self-care, sickness, healing, race, gender, sexuality, capitalism, liberation and our relationship to this planet. They have held workshops and shown work in different spaces including SOMArts, Human Resources, the Women’s Center for Creative Work, and LACE.