Saturday, August 3, 2013

Silene latiflora alba & the Well-Lighted Dream

Some of your adepts are so advanced that they look like ordinary people. You would never know, unless you are an adept yourself.  Like ordinary people, but maybe with an extra radiance. Otherwise, they are like everyone else: a doctor, a mother, a professor, a contractor, a farmer. 
                                Dale Pendell, Pharmako/Gnosis

How many times, I wonder, have you passed by this plain little plant without a second glance, or even without a first glance?  Probably as many times as I have.  Its weedy, ubiquitous presence, non-descript, unnoticeably-scented flowers, and almost total lack of attention from the herbal, foraging, or horticultural communities have rendered the Evening Lychnis (Silene latiflora alba) invisible in plain sight. 

I have to admit that this plant was a close childhood friend of mine.  I loved the round furry bladder (calyx) that grew behind the flower, and I loved to squeeze it open and get a handful of white seeds.  It was almost as much fun to play with as yellow dock, although yellow dock seeds were easier – and less sticky – to carry in one’s pocket. As an adult and an herbalist, I have continued my relationship with the usefully medicinal dock, but I left behind the “useless” Silene.  Like Puff the Magic Dragon, abandoned by his boy, I imagine my sad little green playmate slipping quietly into its cave of disremembrance. 

But this magic dragon would not stay put.  This year, 2013 – this unpleasant, confusing, anxiety-drenched year – my plain old playmate came roaring out of hiding.  By late May, our small farm was awash in Silene seedlings.  I didn’t recognize them at first, so I’m afraid I pulled quite a few. But as soon as they began to push out their curved cradle of stems, I knew who was insisting on my attention.  I stopped throwing them in the weed pile and started digging them out of inconvenient places and replanting them in areas of their own.  Soon, I just started leaving them where they were, in the middle of whatever bed they’d decided to grace.  It seemed like the polite thing to do for an old friend so rudely treated. 

However, it wasn’t my hospitality that Silene was seeking; it was my focused attention.  The plant had something to say – something to offer – that I needed to hear.  I began to see the “extra radiance” that Dale Pendell mentioned in the above quotation.  This was no useless little nothing of a plant:  this was Somebody

Undlela ziimhlophe or the White Way 

Here. Let me show you something.


Four photographs of the same plant, right?  No.  The photos on the left are of the sacred South African shamanic plant Silene capensis (or undulata), called by the Xhosa people “undlela ziimhlophe” or the white way.  The plant on the right is our very own hiding-in-plain-sight Silene alba

Silene capensis is an oneirogen, or “dream generator.” The white way is the way of lucid dreaming – the word “white” being more appropriately translated as “shining” or “luminous.”  As part of a traditional shamanic initiation ceremony of the Xhosa people, Silene capensis opens the white pathway to the ancestors who impart their wisdom and prophetic teachings to the initiate. 

There are several websites that sell powdered root of Silene capensis or seeds for growing it on one’s own.  It is, however, adapted to South African climate and soil. Our own Silene alba, though a European native, has been happily adapted to northern North American climes for a few hundred years, and for all intents and purposes, is now one of our own.   The Iroquois recognized it and ate the sweet young shoots and leaves, but did not, as far I have been able to find out, use it for any other purposes. 

In my own herbal practice, I have always been predisposed towards using plants that grow naturally in my own bioregion or, barring that, those that thrive in the soil and climate of my bioregion without the intervention of heated greenhouses. (For example, I’ve never seen a field of wild Echinacea here in Maine, but in my own gardens, as in many gardens and farms here in the northeast, Echinacea is a hardy, self-sowing staple.)  So – Silene alba, this common little look-alike to the great African oneirogen – here it is in my backyard, asking for my attention. 

I am also, in my own spiritual practice with teacher plants, predisposed to the oneirogens rather than to the more “potent” entheogens – “god generators” or less weirdly, “generators of the divine within.”  For those not quite familiar with these terms, let me give a few examples.  Ayahuasca, Psylicibin mushrooms, peyote, and Datura are considered entheogens – strong psychoactives and hallucinogens that can thrust a person into vivid visionary and “real-seeming” sensual experiences.  The choice not to use these is purely personal to me, as I do love and respect these great teachers.  The strong entheogens can take nearly entire control of the experience, and it often requires a great deal of strength and repeated practice to get one’s bearings and to work alongside (rather than beneath) these powerhouse teachers after several times of being thrown into unexpected places and losing much control.  Experienced practitioners of entheogens may find my reticence a little silly.  I have read with awe the writings of Terence McKenna and Dale Pendell, among others, and at one time, did try to emulate them, but with less than pleasant results. I ended up spending a bit more time than I liked in what the poet William Butler Yeats called “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” (I spend enough time there anyway without additional assistance.)  

“Dreaming” with plant spirits has become my chosen form of working with them. (See my post from February 2010 “Dieting Datura” to read how I used a flower essence to co-create an oneirogenic experience with a strong entheogenic plant. Also, see my post from May 2010, on “daydreaming” with Lady Slipper.)  The important term here is “co-creation.”  The gift, the trick, the teaching of oneirogens is the lucid dream – the shining luminous path that one can walk together with a teacher plant.  The very ordinary image that seems to best describe this experience is that of the specially-made Driver’s Ed car, in which there are brakes and steering wheels on both sides so that the teacher (the oneirogen) can take control as needed from the student (the dreamer).  This is safe and good.  The student can stop the car if she needs to – and the teacher can direct the course until the student gains more mastery.  The perfect road-trip into unknown territory. 

So – back to my Silene alba.  Of course I used it. There it was: so friendly and calm and insistent.  How could I refuse?  Below I will give exact details – along with some very useful tips – on how I chose to begin my experience with this plant for anyone wanting to learn from it on their own. But first: 

The Alchemy of Silene

Before ingesting my little weed, I was curious to find out if Silene alba was as close in chemical make-up to its African cousin as it was in appearance.  What I discovered in terms of its chemistry is fascinating enough to warrant a least a brief mention. 

Despite neglect by the herbal and horticultural communities, the Silene genus of plants (and specifically latiflora alba) has recently been receiving much attention in scientific circles for the enormous number of phytoecdysteroids present in its biochemical make-up - almost one quarter of known phytoecdysteroids have been detected from Silene plants.
Here is a description from one of the more detailed studies that I read  (this is a Chilean study translated from Spanish - thus the odd locution):
  The plants of the genus Silene are well known as rich sources of phytoecdysteroids. . . . The studies on chemical constituents in recent years have disclosed many different activities for phytoecdysteroids, such as anabolic, adaptogenic, tonic and other activities. Plants of this genus may serve as a potential source for dietary supplements, [and specifically] as food supplements for sportsmen, or for use as additives in medicine and cosmetics. From the above is obvious, that phytoecdysteroids could serve as new lead molecules having great expectations in the development of new classes of pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements. (1)

Excuse me?  So this is obviously a piece of industrial research, but there are several important take-aways here.  First, phyto (plant) - ecdysteroids are triterpines, and triterpines are a particular kind of saponin.  Panax ginseng and codonopsis have their own type of tripterpine saponins.  These plants are both well-known adaptogens (i.e., they have a normalizing effect on the stressed body), and they are heavily loaded with adaptogenic triterpines.  Members of the Silene genus also contain adaptogenic triterpines along with a host of others.  For example, several studies have been conducted with positive results focusing on  the antibacterial, anti-tumor, and anti-oxidant effects of the Silenes' chemical cocktail, as well as the immune boosting effects of their particular types of steroidal saponins.  (For further information, see the reference list at the end of the post.)

I am not a biochemist, so this is as far as I'll go with this digression. I do think, though, that the Silenes may warrant a fresh look from the herbal community.

And a final note to this section: Although it is not known for certain what chemicals are responsible for the oneirogenic actions of Silene capensis, there does seem to be agreement that it is likely one of the triterpine saponins, which, because of their structure, can incorporate nitrogen, and thus present chemical and pharmacological characteristics of alkaloids.  Alkaloids are powerful chemicals with strong effects on mind and body, including medicinal, as well as hallucinogenic and/or toxic effects. Nevertheless, whether it is the triterpines or some combination of these and other chemical constituents that create the oneirogenic effect of the African dream herb, one thing is clear:  Silene alba is a very near biochemical match to its cousin.

My own experience with the neglected weed seems to bear this out.
Silene & Silenus
Mask of Silenus (Looks like a Green Man!)
In the final section of Pharmako/Poeia, entitled "Metaphysica," Dale Pendell inserts a wonderful rambling discourse "Reveries on the Green Man," centered primarily on the Greek god, Dionysus, but ending with powerful meditation on another Greek god, Pan.

Throughout history and literature, Dionysus and Pan have been related and often conflated, but in the Greek myths themselves, the relationship between the god of wine and drama and the god of wild things most often hinges on their shared relationship to a minor diety, Silenus.  

The relationship between the three dieties is long, complicated and contradictory, but always present.  (If you are interested in pursuing this further, see Graves, Bullfinch, Campbell, or go back to the Homeric Hymns.) I will just note a few aspects here:

Silenus with infant Dionysus
Pan is the son of Hermes, and Silenus either Pan's brother or his son. Silenus is the foster father and lifelong tutor of Dionysus.  When Dionysus travels with his retinue into India, either Pan accompanies him or Silenus does. Suffice it to say that the three are never far apart in story. 

I don't believe in coincidence, but I have to acknowledge that any exact connection, in the origin of names, between the plant Silene and the god Silenus is lost or non-existent. It may very well have been a case of Greek/Latin homonyms. However, over time, and certainly now, the connection has been firmly made.  

This connection has been very significant to me during my time of working with Silene alba.  Not only in the general sense I have that working with any plant spirit re-connects me to my soul's own grounding in the natural world - the green world - but also in the storied sense that the lesser god Silenus, unlike Dionysus and Pan, seems to evade entirely the tragic and ruthless aspects of those two greater gods. Silenus is perpetually joyful and, most often, drunken, but nurturing and cheerful and humble. He is not an Olympian diety.  In his earliest incarnation, he was not a him at all, but a them - the selenii - rustic spirits of the woodlands and pastures and planting fields. They announced the crazy, over-the-top joyfulness of spring and fertile ground.  And the selenii were also connected to the moon - again fertile and feminine and watery and --- speakers of dreams.

So the circle comes round - and Silenus and Silene meet. Coincidence? Maybe. But whatever.  How beautiful is that?

Unlike my very "fraught" dreaming experience with Datura, my dreaming experience with Silene has been full of light.  Speaking about it to my husband the other day, I described it as having a dream in full sun or on a fully-lit stage.  In the day after I'd had my first "Silene dream,"  I was remembering conversations that I'd had - thinking I'd had them in "real life," then suddenly knowing that those were conversations from a dream. Deep important conversations about working in imaginal spaces. (Something that's particularly important to me right now.)  That's what lucid (light-filled) dreaming is all about. And that's what Silene - the white, luminous way  - is all about co-creating with the dreamer who sets an intention.

The intention, of course, is the most significant ritual aspect of working with this oneirogen - or any oneirogen.  It's what the African shaman-initiates do when working with Silene capensis. It's the key to any magical/mystical/shamanic working: know what you're doing there.  And before I go on to describe the method of ingesting the root, I want to add one note that is so important.  This is paraphrased from my own remembering of something the magnificently brilliant James Hillman wrote (ask me and I will search out the reference, but it's from either Pan and the Nightmare or The Dream and the Underworld.) Hillman wrote:  Do not destroy the image with excessive interpretation.  Dreams are not for telling us where we should go or what we should do. They tell us where we are.

Silene latiflora alba is a kind plant spirit and gentle oneirogen; and if you set your intention, it will shine a soft clear light and show you where you really are. 


So here's the nitty-gritty.

Several websites will tell you there are two methods. I strongly advise you to use the method I will tell you - unless you have an iron gut!

The little leaves are sweet-tasting and a little mucilaginous, and they trick you into thinking that might be how the root is. Because that's how mallow is - sweet leaf, sweet root. Wrong!

The root is the oneirogenic part of the Silene.

Chop the fresh root as finely as possible and then dry. Because if you chunk it up large, you will NOT be able to grind it. It's a rock.

Now you have your dried root.  If you have a Pro-Mix or another powerful emulsifier/blender, you can try to powder it further. Unlike the softer Ashwaganda, it does not powder well in a coffee-grinder.  However, I discovered that creating a powder is unnecessary if you have chopped it finely before drying.

On several websites, you will find that there are two methods of preparing the root for ingesting. The first is the one that requires you to have a stomach of steel. This one says make a cold root infusion of a few tablespoons to a few cups of water and drink it down. (If you want the exact amounts, look it up under "silene capensis." )  I say: don't do this. The root in water smells and tastes like you brewed sweaty gym socks in swamp water.

Regardless of which method you choose, it is best done in morning on an empty stomach to allow the substance to move slowly through your system throughout the day.  Eat one half-hour after ingesting.

So the method I used is the second method described on most sites. Take a heaped teaspoon of chopped root and drop it into one cup of water. Put it in your blender or frantically stir with a spoon until you get a big inch of frothy head like this.

Now take a teaspoon - not your silverware teaspoon - a real measuring teaspoon, and dip it into the foam and drink the foam.  Again, most sites say: keep taking teaspoons "until you feel full."  I did that the first time until I felt full, and spent several hours trying to keep it down. Then it came out the other end.  This is exactly like sipping the foam of dish soap - you are eating soap.  This is not fun for your body, and your body will want to purge it from one end or another.  That is the toxicity of saponins. They won't kill you, but they can make you miserable.  So - on your first day - take two teaspoons. If you're a big guy or a young woman (who is NOT pregnant!!), do three that first day, and just see how your body feels. 

On that first night, set an intention (e.g. - Do I need to quit my job?).  You most likely won't get an answer. But you did it right anyway. The second and third night, do all the same.  Your dreams will likely look brighter and clearer, and you will have more remembrance of them. Understand this:  we do not live in a culture of shamanic tradition; you may not meet your ancestors. We are setting out on our own here, and it won't likely be the same as in the old cultures.  But that's okay.  We are explorers.

Take the root foam for five days, then give yourself a break.  Stop taking it for a week, then do it again if you want.  And remember that Silene is NOT an entheogen. It will not take control of you against your will. It is an oneirogen, and will bring as much as you bring.  You start the car and it will guide you, but it won't start the car for you.

Silene alba is a little magic dragon!  And it is here to gently guide those who ask for its gifts.

from my backyard

References for biochemistry of Silene

 "Studies on ecdysteroides: usage in medicine."
"Phytoecdysteroids from Silene plants: distribution, diversity, and biological (antitumour, antibacterial and antioxidant) activities."

"Antibacterial activity of traditional medicinal plants used by Haudenosaunee peoples of New York State."

"Adjuvant effects of saponins on animal immune responses."