On Flower Essences And The Power Of Irrational Thinking

Old cures for a new age.

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Art credit: Twisha Patni

My dad’s brain is an encyclopedia. He can identify constellations by sight and recite their mythological origins; he has an uncanny knack for matching dogs to their breeds. His is a pre-Google type of knowledge, one I never managed to cultivate myself despite his constant example — the way he breathlessly admires “an amaryllis” or “a crocus” instead of “a flower” like the rest of us.

I want to know the world as deeply as I feel it, but I also cherish my ignorance — “the known unknowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. I’m protective of the unknowns, really. I like knowing there are still lessons to learn and wrong turns to make. Big deal if my dad knows plants by their government names: Does he know you can buy a flower’s distilled energy waves and ingest them to fix your personality? I mean, you can’t. I know that now. But there’s something delightful and grotesque — something human — about the willingness to entertain impossible possibilities.

***

It wasn’t ignorance that led me to flower essences. It was more like desperation. More like What’s the quickest, most painless way to stop hating myself? I’ll take five.

Flower essences, “discovered” in the 1930s by the English doctor Edward Bach, offered a solution: The flora-based brews were rumored to treat personality ailments, which Bach believed to be the true cause of physical illness. The doc posited that each flower contained a unique energy whose waves could be extracted and consumed by “the sun method,” a process by which flower heads are placed in distilled water and essentially baked in the sun for three hours. This water-plus-flower-power “mother tincture” is then mixed with brandy for preservation, bottled, and sold to people who are willing to buy the idea that a dropperful of crabapple a day keeps the self-loathing away.

I discovered flower essences about 80 years later, in 2014. I had recently spent a weekend in Hudson, NY — a city whose website describes it as “Upstate’s Downtown” — where a friend had taken me to a local apothecary. We convened around a shelf of amber dropper bottles. “I’m obsessed with these tinctures,” my friend said, to which I replied, “What the shit is a tincture?”

Then I bought a bunch of tinctures, in addition to a surplus of Chinese herbal supplements whose whimsical names — Free and Easy Wanderer, Women’s Precious — seemed to heal me preemptively. That day, I swallowed eight pellet-like Chinese herbs (the suggested dosage) and pumped a water bottle full of my new anxiety tincture (more than the suggested dosage, probably). I was changed.

When I returned to the city, I began incorporating tinctures into my daily routine. Unlike flower essences, which arrived somewhat late to the distilled-plant game, herbal plant-based tinctures have a centuries-old legacy and reputation; they’re generally accepted as a legitimate vehicle for consuming natural medicine. A simple analogy is that tinctures are tea’s more potent cousin: A chamomile tincture will have the same effect on sleeplessness and pain as its loose-leaf counterpart, just supercharged. As with flower essences, the medicinal properties of the plant are extracted using grain alcohol and consumed by the dropperful. The standard dosage is 2-3 droppers, up to three times a day, until symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness, and a “closed heart” subside.

I followed this regimen dutifully, even brewing my own tinctures when it became more financially expedient. But I was not sated by a pantry full of dried herbs. I wanted plants to next-level fix me — all of me. Tinctures addressed some of my physical symptoms, but I had a laundry list of other defects to outsource to nature. And so Google led me to flower essences, which promised to instill confidence (Larch), combat self-imposed repression (Rock Water), and quell hopelessness and despair (Gorse), among other things.

Bach and his acolytes identified 38 core flower essences. But I assumed that number had grown, given that Bach died 50 years before I was born. I bought a kit of 40 essences, along with some trendy modern blends I found online. The kit explained which essences to take for which ailments.

I was especially drawn to those that removed creative roadblocks. Eventually, I fashioned a daily cocktail that was almost gross enough to be considered an acquired taste. It consisted of a water base, up to three relevant flower essences, my homemade anxiety tincture, two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, a bag of Yogi Positive Energy tea (for its tangerine flavor and uplifting properties), and a bag of Traditional Medicine Dandelion Root tea (for staying regular, not to be confused with staying normal).

Because I drank my ritualistic potion three times daily, I often brewed it in public, which meant people could form opinions about it. My then-boyfriend, for example, began to question my sanity. He found my daily identification of three negative feelings and their floral counterparts less an adorable quirk than a testament to my descent into unreality. “You act like you know more about this than I do and … you don’t,” I’d say — which was true, although it was also true that I didn’t know much about flower essences either.

So I bought Bach’s book, The Bach Flower Remedies. As I read the doctor’s philosophy, the appeal-to-authority fallacy laughed in my flower-hungry face. You know what method he used to identify his core flowers and their related emotions? Psychic intuition. He would experience a negative feeling, hold his hand over various flowers until he felt “healed,” and, boom, a flower essence would get its wings.

At this point, I had to concede that I was engaging in pseudo-scientific bullshit. Yet even this acknowledgement did little to deter me from performing my daily ritual. I was inventing my own method of mindfulness, creating space for reflection where it hadn’t previously existed.

***

Did I mention my dad used to own a flower shop? He bought it from my grandfather around the time I was born. Both men loved and respected flowers. But I’m pretty sure they never drank their runoff. I wonder what they’d think about me and my flower essences: Would their reactions mirror what I felt when they insisted we attend Midnight Mass every Easter?

“We’re C & E Christians, Christmas and Easter,” my dad would remind me as I stomped around in protest. “We don’t even go to church on Christmas!” I’d scream, to which he’d dust off his stock response, a hokey “My God, you’re right. Now we really have to go!”  

When my dad talks about going to church as a kid, it’s like he’s talking about the Boy Scouts: just a thing he did once a week, no big deal. Religion played such a negligible role in my own upbringing that, by 10,  I had psychosomatic symptoms any time the prospect of church came up. I wondered, aloud and loudly, why my father would bring his non-believing spawn to a house of worship. I questioned his judgment and basic humanity. But my father could not shake this tradition, this ritual, no matter how flimsy his religious commitment was the other 364 days of the year.   

I must confess that, before I learned the words atheist and hypocrite, I also turned to Jesus in times of need. I started having awful recurring nightmares when I was eight. So my dad devised a bedtime ritual: Each night we’d recite “Our Father” together. Then he’d lead me in the sign of the cross while I held a small crucifix in my hand. The ritual culminated with the crucifix tucked beneath my pillow, like a nightmare tooth awaiting the Jesus Fairy. Whether Jesus actually showed up to flush my brain dumps I can’t say, but I did eventually stop having nightmares. It didn’t matter that my family went to church once a year. The mere existence of the ritual — something mechanical and predictable and above all, reliable — was what helped me sleep at night.

I never memorized the names of Bach’s 38 flower essences; I still use a chart to discern which does what. I didn’t get the recall gene from my dad. But we have a shared wisdom now: that using logic to interrogate rituals misses the point. The point is the structure, the repetition, the space for reflection. And despite rejecting my religious inheritance, my brain knew I needed a proxy, somehow, and found it in flower essences. The whole thing feels kind of primal, the unconscious fulfillment of this ancient need. It feels not just like I know the world deeply, but like I belong in it, which is a vast improvement over the inexplicable gloom that led me to flower essences in the first place. Of course, such malaise is common and nothing to be ashamed of. Bach recommends Mustard essence.

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