Ancestral Herbalism: Tilia europaea

Tila Tequila. I opened my eyes, sat up in bed and reached for my journal. “Tila Tequila,” I scribbled down. As I did my morning water ritual, drinking a glass of water and watering the plants, I meditated on what the message meant. I’m not much of a lucid dreamer, but sometimes right before waking up, I’m able to hang onto a small piece of a dream. Sometimes I translate what was happening in the dream into a phrase that I can remember upon waking, like a message from the dreamtime.

It came to me fairly quickly and miraculously, as I poured water, that I wasn’t having fantasies or nightmares about the MTV star, but that “Tila Tequila” was a catchy pop culture code from the great beyond for “tilo.” I knew that tilo is an herb and I got excited that an herb had showed up in my dreams.

This is hardcore herbalist-wise woman-curandera-shamanistic-mystic-witch stuff. "I’m on the right path! I'm being guided," I thought.

But who is tilo? And why was tilo making an appearance in the workings of my subconscious? I had fuzzy memories of tilo being available from brands like Badia in the tea section at the mainstream Florida grocery stores, such Publix and Winn-Dixie, but I didn’t have a relationship with the herb.

I knew intuitively that this herb was a celestial prescription for me, not for a family member, friend or community member that sometimes reach out asking for herbal recommendations for various ailments.

Tilo was for me. One week before, I had been doing some psychospiritual work with a wise woman counselor who had advised me to turn to my dreams for guidance around a life transition I’m passing through, a time in my life where I’m seeking clarity around next steps and needing to calm the mind so I can listen to spirit. She had asked me to resurrect my old practice of writing down my dreams. Got it; on it. But who was tilo? I wanted instant answers. I broke out my phone and asked the oracle...Google.

linden flower

linden flower

Here’s what I found out: Another common herbal name for tilo is “linden.” “Linden rings a bell!,” I thought.  She is commonly used as a sedative, to help folks relax. “I need to relax!” I thought. The botanical (Latin) name is Tilia europaea and there are about 30 other species of huge, super tall, beautiful trees found in Europe, eastern North America, and Asia. “I am a huge, super tall, beautiful tree from Europe!” I thought. The tea found in those grocery stores is made from dried flowers from the tree.  “I am so connected to flowers!” I thought. Through the wonders of 21st century technology, in 10 minutes I learned that linden is also an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, and hepatoprotective (good for the liver).  I found out that linden is used by herbalists for treating colds, coughs, fevers, infection, inflammation, high blood pressure, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, and more.   

How could I, a certified herbalist of over ten years of formal studies, not have a relationship with linden?

Easy. Herbalism is a lifelong study. Ten years ain’t nada. And certification sounds fancy, but doesn’t necessarily mean much in itself. Wise woman herbalist Susun Weed says its takes nine lifetimes ---that’s nine cycles of birth and death, y’all --- to become an herbalist. I’m just barely getting started! Someone else wise, perhaps one of my teachers such as herbalist Emily Ruff or curandero Don Juan Tangoa Paima, said that it’s better to know 40 uses for one herb than one use for 40 different herbs.  So this getting-to-know-the-plants thing is a slow process that requires patience and steadfastness.

Given the immensity of the mission, I’m focusing my studies on the medicinal plants that grow in abundance where I live, which is sub-tropical Miami, Florida. No linden trees growing here! For nervine herbs that help soothe anxiety and stress, us Magic City folks have Passiflora incarnata (passionflower) growing wild, Piper methysticum (kava-kava) at the farms, Melissa officinalis (lemon balm) in the winter gardens and Bidens alba (Spanish needle) pretty much in eternal supply.  

So why was I being asked to work with linden when there are plenty of other herbal allies that could offer similar properties? As I did more research, it became clear that I was being directed by my ancestors to reconnect with my deep herbal heritage, way back to the homeland of my great-great great-great-great-grandparents in Finland, Sweden, Scotland, and Ireland. There’s rich European folklore around the linden tree. One story states that if you sit under a linden tree, you can be cured of epilepsy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Julia + Grandma Irene

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Julia + Grandma Irene

There’s another one that says if you fall asleep under a linden tree, you will be taken into the realm of the fairies. There’s Roman and German stories about linden being the “tree of lovers” and Polish stories indicating that the wood of the tree is good protection against the evil eye and lightning.

There’s magic in these stories. Even though something happened that disconnected my people from our herbal oral traditions that could have transmitted these stories to me through my grandmothers rather than through the internet, I recognize these western European stories about linden as my stories, because that is where my people came from before arriving as settlers in North America several generations ago. I find myself grieving with a sad heart for whatever happened that made my great-great-great-great grandmothers stop sharing stories of our people and our relationships with sacred medicine plants.

I acknowledge that it’s sometimes an easier and more immediate way of connecting with herbal traditions to learn from the folks that have more successfully stewarded and continued their oral traditions, such as some of my Latin American and Caribbean family, friends, and neighbors here in Miami. It’s not to be overlooked that linden came to me cloaked in one of its common Spanish names, tilo. Many herbalists have our reconnection to plant spirit medicine activated through sacred medicines that are not native to our ancestral homeland. That’s cool; it’s in divine order. However, us “white” European-American people can begin the tough and crucial work of taking responsibility for healing our lineages by working with the medicine plants our ancestors worked with, even as we learn about, work with, and steward the traditions around the medicine plants that grow in our new homes. In doing so, we can recall that all people are indigenous people; we are all indigenous to the Earth. We are reclaiming our plant spirit medicine traditions that firm our connection to the Earth.         

Speaking of the Earth, because I couldn’t go out into nature and wildcraft linden flowers, or find tilo at my neighborhood farmer’s market, or even in a local apothecary, I ordered a pound of organic, fair trade linden flowers online and it was shipped to my home by vehicles that are still dependent on fossil fuels.

linden flowering tree

linden flowering tree

When the linden arrived, I started an evening ritual of making and drinking a strong infusion an hour or so before bed. I found that the linden didn’t immediately help me get sleepy or slow the questions swirling in mind, but that once I fell asleep, I had much deeper and dreamier sleep. So dreamy, in fact, that the linden sacrament evening ritual was making me kind of groggy in the morning. But the dreams that were coming to me were powerful and vivid. Linden became like a midwife in this mysterious psychospiritual process unfolding, an aid to my transformation, helping me to slow down and look for answers within.

After a few months, my work with linden got interrupted. My evening ritual was overshadowed by travels, work, the winter holiday season, and other distractions that seemed somehow more important.

But early this New Year, I found myself experiencing scary and unfamiliar holistic health symptoms that I could not possibly ignore, such as extreme vertigo and pain in my body. After much consultation with several trusted holistic healthcare practitioners in my life and doing my own spiritual and reflective inquiry, it seems that these symptoms are tied to anxiety and stress.

As I write this story of how tilo came to me in my dreams, I am deeply moved by this gift that was given to me by my ancestors, and struck by how easily I let it go. Rather than beat myself up for slacking on my self-care, I can honor this gift from my ancestors by following the instructions I was given through my dreams and welcoming this European herbal ally back into my evening ritual. In doing so, I’m healing myself as well as healing my lineage. This is ancestral herbalism.

-  When we need help, we can ask the plant spirit medicine guides, our ancestors and other benevolent forces for help.

-  Often, this help arrives through our dreams and intuitions; we are guided to the medicine and healing we need. It has always been this way. 

-  When we connect with our herbal heritage by working with the plants our people had medicinal relationships with, we can heal traumas in our ancestral lineage, particularly those tied to colonization, religious persecution, and cultural appropriation. This recognition and healing of the past is necessary for building the vitality and resilience to face present challenges with courage, vitality and wisdom.         


text by Julia Onnie-Hay

alma aromatherapy