Before tech bros were obsessed with biohacking and microdosing, before New York Times journalists were teaching aging yuppies about mushrooms, before Goop interns were filming trips for Netflix … there were plant healers, the feminine backbone of many indigenous spiritual traditions. Plants have long been a tool used for healing, and much of the world’s body of knowledge about plant medicine comes from indigenous women’s scholarship.
Sociological research finds that in many indigenous myths, women were thought to be closer to the mysteries of life and death, and thus were handed the reins on cultivation and usage of plant medicine. As colonization – along with Europe’s scientific revolution – forced previously respected female spiritual leaders to the back, plant medicine lost its status and respect.
Today, the healing potential of traditional plant medicine is beginning to gain recognition once more. This progress wasn’t inevitable, however. It is through the hard work of many visionaries that we have gotten to this point, and on this Women’s Month and always, we celebrate modern female plant medicine pioneers.
In 1957, Life magazine featured a glossy spread on mysterious and intriguing mushroom rituals in Mexico. Written by American economist and author Robert Gordon Wasson, the article drew great attention to the indigenous healer that led Wasson and his wife, Valentina Wasson, on their trip, María Sabina Magdalena García.
Sabina came from a small town in southern Mexico called Huautla de Jiménez. Her people, the Mazatec, had a strong tradition of using local hallucinogenic mushrooms in ceremonies, and Sabina came from a line of shamans. She is said to have first consumed the mushrooms (Mexican Psilocybe, which only grow in one particular mountain range) at eight years old, and intuitively took to the healing practice.
Sabina helped people who came to her with both physical and spiritual ailments. Acting as a guide, Sabina would join her clients on a psychedelic journey to the spiritual realm as they sought the treatment that would help them best. Her nighttime ceremonies incorporated chants, mezcal, tobacco smoke, and medicinal ointments.
The Life spread put the “Priestess of Mushrooms” on the map in the English-speaking world. Her village would play host to such mid century icons as Alduous Huxley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Walt Disney. Sabina’s legacy is complicated. She undoubtedly opened Western minds to holistic healing, but in the process, she brought a new sort of colonialism to her home. Her Mazatec neighbors grew tired of the crush of hippie tourists. Mexican authorities accused her of selling drugs to foreigners and banned the use of psilocybin mushrooms in the 1970s.
“From the moment the foreigners arrived to search for God, the saint children lost their purity,” Sabina said. “They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them. From now on they won’t be any good. There’s no remedy for it.”
Sabina died, without much to her name, in 1985 at the age of 91.
In many places around the world, opportunities remain slim for women. For Chido Govera, learning about plant medicine was a fruitful and unconventional way out of a life of poverty and oppression. When the orphaned Zimbabwean was 10, she was offered marriage to a much older man, which she turned down so she could continue to help her ailing grandmother and younger brother. A year later, her risky choice paid off when she joined a mushroom cultivation training program under Belgian entrepreneur Gunter Pauli. Pauli became a mentor as Govera excelled at the work, building on her community’s knowledge of local mushrooms.
“My grandmother was so knowledgeable that even when she couldn't see anymore she could smell which mushrooms were edible, inedible, poisonous,” Govera told The Guardian.
Today, Govera is a successful farmer and educator, as well as the founder of The Future of Hope Foundation. The foundation is focused on teaching young orphans in poverty-stricken locations how to cultivate nutritious foods sustainably, and also be good custodians of their local biodiversity.
Govera’s inspiring story is in many ways a foil to Maria Sabina’s cautionary tale. Where Sabina shared her knowledge with steam-rolling Western forces to the detriment of her home, Govera was able to use her skills to help lift herself and others like her up. Plant medicine has often been overlooked or abused by those in power, but female leaders and guides in this art continue to fight for healing of individuals and communities. Hopefully future stories will more closely resemble Govera’s.