Mother Earth provides us with an extraordinary assortment of natural tools, such as plant medicines, to maintain the health of ourselves and one another. This “people’s medicine” is a welcome addition to any midwife’s birth bag, and an important part of midwife training. In this forthcoming series called “Herbs for Labor” for Birth Institute, Susun Weed, an American herbalist well-known for her teachings in the “Wise Woman Way” of herbalism, will introduce and give detailed explanations of individual herbs used in birth, each with its own unique uses. Using herbs to support laboring women is as old as birth itself.
I was once taken to a sacred place in Northern Ontario. It was general knowledge that Native America women had once used this place and held it sacred, but no one knew what they used it for or why it was a sacred place.
After a fair walk, in a clearing in the woods, we came to a large circle guarded by poison ivy vines intertwined with raspberry brambles. There did not seem to be a way to enter the large circle within. Finally, I got down on my hands and knees and searched. There was a tunnel. We crawled through and emerged into a completely cleared area with four large trees marking the four directions. One had been hit by lightening and was dead. The others were green and thriving.
Near the center of the circle was an area that commanded our attention. After brushing away decades of leaf litter, we found the remnants of a fires and three holes: one shallow and large (big enough to sit it) and, on either side of it, two small deep ones (about the size of my wrist). It was easy to see (in my mind’s eye) what had gone on there.
Exploring further, I encountered three-part trillium leaves, heart-shaped wild ginger leaves, the compound leaves of blue cohosh and black cohosh, and many other woodland plants valued by midwives.
The use and meaning of the sacred place was as obvious as could be. It was a “birthing center.” Laboring women were protected and safe here. The plants growing there, while wild and local, were, I suspect, brought there and tended so they would be at hand if needed during and after the birth.
Sturdy forked sticks had been place in the small holes. And there would have been a strong stout branch joining them, placed at just the right height for a squatting woman to grab it with her arms fully extended so she can pull down to ease labor pain. The shallow hole, no doubt lined with spaghnum moss from the nearby wetland, provided a warm welcome to the newborn babe.
I later learned more about such birthing circles. “When the baby emerged and was gentled into the birthing hole, we told it, ‘You are born from a human mother. She will do all she can for you, but she is a woman and has her own needs. We place you on the earth to remind you that the Earth is also your mother. She will always be there for you. She will always love you, support you, feed you, warm you, and heal you.’”
Are you interested in using herbs? Nourishing herbal infusions* drunk regularly is one of the best ways to start getting the benefits of herbs, both for the mom and the midwife. Nourishing herbal infusions create healthy women and babies, and less-stressed, more energized midwives who are less likely to have problems during labor and delivery.
Nonetheless, it is wise to have a working knowledge of those herbs that can be used to encourage and support normal labor, to help women whose labor stalls, to aid the opening of the os, to help a laboring woman who is exhausted, to ease pain during labor, to keep blood pressure in a safe range during labor, and to counter postpartum hemorrhage.
Some of the most important herbs used during labor by Western herbalists are angelica (Angelica archangelica), birth root (Trillium alba), black cohosh root (Cimicifuga racemosa), blue cohosh root (Caulophylum thalictroides), catnip (Nepeta cataria), cotton root (Gossypium), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), ginseng (Panax quinqefolium), hops (Humulus lupulus), life root (Senecio aureus), lobelia (lobelia inflata), marijuana (Cannabis), motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), nettle (Urtica dioica), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), raspberry (Rubus), skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), and wild ginger (Asarum canadense).
No midwife would use all of these herbs at any one labor. And not all midwives use all of these herbs. And not all herbs used in all countries for labor are listed here, only those used in North America, Europe, and Russia, that is, the temperate regions of the world. If you become intimate with even three herbs from this list – one to moderate pain, one to strengthen contractions, and one to lend support to the woman during her labor – you will find a new confidence in your ability to naturally assist women who are in labor.
Green blessings abound!
* Such as raspberry leaf, nettle leaf, oatstraw, red clover, linden flowers, hawthorn leaves and flowers, and chickweed. An infusion is not a tea. A tea is a small amount of fresh or dried herbs brewed for a short time. An infusion is one full ounce/30 grams of dried herb, placed in a quart jar, the jar filled to the brim with boiling water, tightly lidded, and left to steep for 4-10 hours.
Susun Weed has appeared on numerous national radio, television, and new-media venues, including National Public Radio, NBC News, CNN, and ABCNews.com. She has been quoted and interviewed in many major magazines, including Natural Health, Woman’s Day, First for Women, and Herbs for Health. She is a contributor to the Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women’s Studies, and writes a regular column in Sagewoman and for Awakened Woman online.
Image Source: Susun Weed
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