An Interview with Liz Migliorelli of Sister Spinster
Liz Migliorelli is a western herbalist and magic maker who is a proponent of affordable, accessible, community-based health care and the healing power of plants. She believes in the healing that comes from our own gardens, the local land and our kitchens. She is devoted to encouraging others to find empowerment through self-care and harm reduction, to find healing in a cup of fir tip and strawberry leaf tea, and to find magic in the simple practices that connect us to the Earth. Liz is the owner of Sister Spinster where she spends most of her time communing with flowers and making essences from them. When she's not doing that she is teaching classes around the Bay Area, taking forest naps and infusing herbal honeys.
Amber: How did you get started doing this and how long have you been doing this work?
Liz: I’ve been working with plants for about 10 years but Sister Spinster is officially two years old. I started working with plants because I was really sick and was living with a witch who grew up on an island commune in Alaska. She was the island midwife and herbalist and she helped me figure out what was going on and introduced me to nettles as well as some other plants that really helped.
I grew up in a pretty western medicine family - my grandfather was a surgeon and my grandmother is a nurse so that was what I had known but I found so much healing in the idea of self-healing and self-care and felt really empowered. I felt disempowered going to doctors' offices so that was a huge radical change and what I needed to start my life’s work.
A: Were you skeptical at first?
L: I wasn’t skeptical, which is kind of weird. I’m a born and bred New Yorker and very analytical and into the critical mind but for some reason I just knew that it was the right thing. It has always felt right to me.
A: Do you think people are drawn to certain plants at certain times without perhaps consciously knowing why? Do you think we possess an innate sense even if we are not familiar with plants’ healing properties?
L: I’d like to think so. I hope that we’re not so far removed from ourselves that we don’t listen to that when we need it but there are people who don’t operate in that way at all and force that intuitive side of themselves to stay quiet. The most important part of my work is encouraging that in people, to feel empowered and to listen to what they need and when that comes up to act on that and honor it. I always tell clients and students, you can read a thousand herb books about how this plant calms the nervous system and so on but if it doesn’t do that for you, it doesn’t do that for you and that’s OK. I have a friend that launches into panic attacks if she has a sip of chamomile tea which is not what chamomile generally does for people but everyone has a different experience and it’s important that people honor that.
A: Do you feel a kinship with one plant in particular? Or do you love them all equally?
L : I go through cycles with them just depending on the season and even depending on the day. "What am I facing today? Whats coming up for me?" I definitely have my allies, my homies like rosemary but when I’m teaching a class I’ll say, “Ok now we’re going to talk about my favorite plant, Elder” and then I’ll go onto the next one and say, "This one is also my favorite".
A: It’s hard to pick favorites. Like children, they all have their own qualities.
L : They’re all just really good friends of mine at this point. Sure I guess you can have a best friend but it kind of just feels like you have a million best friends.
A: How about any flower or plant enemies?
L: I don’t have an enemy per se but I do have a teacher. I have a plant teacher. Whenever I work with it it puts me through the ringer to really do some deep work where I’m sobbing and crying while I’m harvesting the plant and it takes me 5 days to process the root because it’s so intense. It’s Devil’s Club, it grows up in Washington and in Oregon but it’s a really, really powerful plant that shouldn’t really be messed with. It’s such a powerful teacher for me and it’ll be like "Ok you can’t work with me now for another year" or "You can’t give me to your clients you just have to work with me in the dream world". So I do that work and then I’ll pick it up again and see what happens. It’s a really strict teacher of mine. Kinda like hard knocks a little bit.
A: Can you talk a little bit more about the dream world?
L : Dreams are really, really powerful healing forces as well as sources of information especially ancestral knowledge. I create dreaming practices with plants where I will dream with an herb or about an herb or keep it under my pillow and ask the medicine of those plants to be shown to me or just have my relationship deepened with it. I also work a lot with dreams in terms of doing ancestral work which is a big part of my herbal work. Most indigenous cultures, if not all, see dreaming as a very viable source of knowledge and it’s about getting in touch with your intuitive side and being able to receive wisdom through dreams. Being able to manifest through dreams is a really important practice so that’s something that I’ve been deepening in my practice. It was through my dreams that my great-grandmother came to me who I had never met and she said, "You need to learn about this side of the family" and that was basically what started my search into ancestral remembrance work, it was because of a dream I had! So I pay attention to what shows up. I think it’s really, really important.
I keep a dream journal for those purposes because often in the moment you don’t really know what it means but you’re able to look back on things and piece different storylines together and compare parallels with your waking world. It’s been a really powerful tool in terms of realizing the things that are coming through in the dreams that need to be paid attention to.
A: On your website you talk a little bit about how certain astrological events can affect your essences in certain ways in terms of things you might intentionally want. Could you give some examples of what sort of astrological events yield what sort of results or vibrations?
L: I have a formula called ‘Ghosts’ which is all about doing underworld work and all of those essences were made under full Scorpio moons because that is a sign that is really about subconscious worlds, underworlds, getting in touch with the mysteries. And because that energy was already amplified with the moon being there, I decided that that was medicine that I wanted to add into the essences. All the plants that are in there already are doing that underworld connection work.
A few years ago Venus transited the sun which was a really big deal astrologically, it doesn’t happen often and it was this time of amazing universal abundant love being really accessible so I made a lot of different essences on that day because I really wanted to have the influences of Venus and the sun amplifying that energy within the medicine I was making.
It could be as simple as just making medicines on new moons or full moons, a new moon being a really great time to initiate a project or do some dreaming about the darkness for example and then a full moon being about amplification of energy and something coming into fulfillment and having really high energy around it. That’s always a good place to start and then you can get further into looking at where all the different planets are at what times and seeing what’s up and using that to your advantage.
A: How did you think up your products? Was it a need a friend had or you had or just something you felt like the world needed at that moment?
L: I think that they’re all because of things that I needed. I really enjoy making medicine for myself.
A: It’s a good place to start!
L: It’s funny because this past month has been insanely hellish for me and this whole month I’ve thought, "Thank god I make such good medicine" because it’s really working and helping me right now. It had been awhile since I had used my own medicines and I thought, "Wow, they work. This is great!"
My first formula was the 'Ghosts' formula and it came from a dream that I had. The dream told me how to work with these plants and when I started to I realized that they were really good for doing underworld, shadow work. Everything else kind of just came from different needs that I had. I have a formula called The Shrine which is influenced by Dr.Bach’s Rescue Remedy but this one is made using only California native plants. I think it’s really important to use the plants that are around us so that’s why I remade it with local plants. It has a very different energy than his formula.
I see clients, I’m a practitioner so I see themes that come up a lot and themes that I identify with so the products I make are an accumulation of what my clients are going through and also what I have gone through and what I am going through.
A - Your field is interesting because its medicinal in its foundation but there are aspects which are very magical and spiritual. It seems that this might make it more accessible to people depending on whether they are into the ritual aspects or the medicinal. But I feel like there are still a lot of people don't know about this whole world.
L - A lot of people don’t know about it and I think that’s why I decided to go to herb school to get a clinical background so I could talk the talk and walk the walk and be able to talk about things like anatomy and hormone cascades and be able to read a blood lab test. That legitimizes my work in some people’s eyes, even though I do it for the spiritual side of it, the magical side of it. It can be a very scientific practice. This class tonight is definitely going to be more straightforward and not as woo-out but you know... I brought it - (gestures to simmering cauldron and lit candles)
A: There's still the ritual aspect and that in itself helps people to have the intention of what they’re trying to fix, heal, or nurture. So often you’re just given medicine and then taking in unconsciously and intention takes a back burner.
L: Intention is everything. That’s the most important thing. It’s not going to work if you don’t believe it.
A: Do you have a favorite herb book?
L: Every book by Rosemary Gladstar changed my life as well as Susan Weed. Those were really empowering to me when I was sick and needed to view what was happening in my life with a different perspective. Start with Rosemary Gladstar. There’s an herbalist in Maine named Gale Faith Edwards and she does a lot of really great herb work and another woman in Maine named Deb Soule. They're elders of the herbal community of the western herbal tradition and they’ve been holding down the work for a really long time.
I used to go to the library and look for local publications by local ladies groups and I would find all this stuff, often a lot of women had compiled all of their recipes and folklore about plants that were in their yards. I found that really inspiring. I also always tell people to read the folklore from the places where they’re from because often the folklore contains a lot of the plant knowledge which is really fun.
A: Can people take more than one essence at a time?
L: With essences it's totally flexible. Finding routines that feel good is a really important part of medicine. "How do I take this in a way that makes me feel great and when do I need it?"
I feel like essences work the more you take them, the more they work for you because it means you’re engaging with your intention more often which is powerful.
You could keep them on your altar and take them when you’re having a moment there or put them by your door so you can take some before you go out into the world if you need that help. I have people drop them in their bath water, people put them in their food, in their water, I have friends that are painters and I make formulas for them for creativity and they will put them in their paints and then paint with them. You could put some in a spray bottle and spray your space with the essences, whatever you wanna do.
There’s no way that you could do it wrong. It should be fun and creative and not a drag.
Liz recently held a 'Winter Wellness' workshop at the shop and taught us how to use herbs to take care of ourselves during the season of turning inward and hibernating!
Some of Liz's recommended herbs for immunity:
Elecampane – A wonderful respiratory tonic herb. Great for dry coughs, bronchitis, asthma, and chronic lung ailments. Stimulating expectorant, pectoral, demulcent, anti-tussive, diaphoretic, anti-bacterial.
Goldenseal - Can help dry up chronic and moist inflamed sinuses. Stimulates digestion. Astringent, bitter.
Lemon Balm – A sunshine plant for the winter months. Antiviral, nervine, anti-depressant
Mullein – Excellent lung tonic that reduces damp and phlegm congestion in lungs. Works slowly and steadily to bring lungs to homeostasis. Helps with borderline chronic conditions and asthma. Astringent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, tonic
Thyme – Thyme is very antimicrobial and can help fight off the flu. It’s strong volatile oils make a great steam for sinus congestion. Antiseptic, decongestant, antifungal, antibacterial, carminative
Turmeric – Turmeric will attack both bacterial and viral infections. It’s a great herb for treating respiratory illness, making it a great choice for flu and cold season! It’s highly anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, analgesic, hemostatic, vulnerary
Valerian – A favorite calming nervine and sleep herb. Can help someone who is suffering sleep deeply, allowing the body to rest and heal. Sedative, nervine, hypnotic
Wild Cherry Bark – Great for a continual irritated cough, especially one that keeps you awake at night! A nice revitalizing tonic for the common cold. Antitussive, cardiotonic, anti-spasmodic
Yarrow - Yarrow is a wonder plant. It can stop bleeding, help heal wounds, stimulate sweating, aid digestion and more! Great in tea to help warm the body. Diaphoretic, analgesic, bitter, vasodiolator.
And finally! Please enjoy this recipe from Sister Spinster and be well during these winter months.
Elderberry Cordial (Decoction method - can be used for a basic cordial recipe)
Ingredients: elderberries, honey, brandy, water.Optional ingredients: wild cherry bark, cinnamon, ginger, rose hips, aralia, osha, mullein, olive leaf
Start with about ½ cup herbs to 2 cups water.
Decoct elderberries and other seeds, roots and barks for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Turn off heat.
Add flowers & leaves and steep for at least 20 minutes more.
Make into strong tea.
Strain and measure liquid.
Add ½ cup honey per 2 cups liquid.
Add 1 part brandy to 1 part tea decoction.
Bottle and enjoy!
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