A year ago, my daughter and I drove to Vancouver and made the rounds. Molly lives in Bellingham, Washington, near the Canadian border. The first stop was the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden for a walk around; the second stop was Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for my introduction to the healing powers of auricular acupuncture with ear seeds. Listen up.

Ear seeds for healing and the garden

The UBC Botanical Garden was extraordinary. I covet the lushness of the temperate Pacific Northwest—at least in the summer—when the weather is usually mild, and skies are blue.  We walked the trail in the Asian Garden past towering maples, magnolias, rhododendrons, and a patch of skunk cabbages. I saw what the long-lived perennial Kirengeshoma palmata could do—really do—absent conditions of my chronic hot and humid Kentucky summer biome. I’ve grown the herbaceous Hydrangea relative for more than 30 years, five-feet tall and wide with dozens of blooms. Are you kidding me?! My adult plant is a runt. Three feet tops with only a handful of waxy, nodding yellow bells.

Molly and dad at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden

I’d never heard of ear-seed acupuncture, though I have been the longtime beneficiary of needle acupuncture at Louisville’s Community Supported Acupuncture (CSA) and served on its board for a year. I teach a tai chi class there each week, also.

I became intrigued with ear seeds—practically and horticulturally.

The flowering Vaccaria, commonly called cow soapwort, was a popular source for ear seeding.

Love in the Time of Fentanyl

Molly became interested in working with care workers in the stricken Vancouver Downtown Eastside after watching “Love in the Time of Fentanyl.” Ronnie Grigg, of the Zero Block Society, a longtime frontline harm reduction worker, appeared in the documentary. Grigg, a big man with a heart to match, is gentle and resilient. Practicing compassion is inherently worthwhile but extraordinarily difficult with a community in a crisis of overdose and homelessness. Burnout is a vocational peril for frontline harm reduction workers.

Molly learned that Grigg had begun a weekly grief circle for harm reduction workers who were overwhelmed by the ongoing neighborhood tragedy. “The film,” Molly wrote, “resonated with positive possibilities of collective care work I have long imagined, and also spoke to my own past experience of burnout and collapse as a frontline worker.”

The Listening Post

Cow soapwort is not an everyday pink

Vaccaria, a member of the Caryophyllaceae, or pink family, includes better known Dianthus as well as Gypsophila (baby’s breath). Vaccaria hispanica (Saponaria vaccaria, Gypsophila vaccaria) has been bounced taxonomically between other genera including Saponaria and Gypsophila. Gypsophila vaccaria, a bee pollinator, has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. For the purposes of this story, I’m working with Vaccaria hispanica. The other Latin names are synonymous.

My daughter Molly spent her first 13 years on our former Holbrook Farm and Nursery in Western North Carolina, surrounded by plants, plant people, pollinated by curiosity. Her interest detonated in her early 30s. Molly began teaching me about foraging and medicinal herbs that I had long ignored. She also helped me understand that not every weed and bug are my natural enemies.

Needle acupuncture versus ear seeding

Molly published a booklet this year about volunteering at Vancouver’s Listening Post. An excerpt:

I learned about the Acu-Detox protocol (also referred to as NADA protocol, five-point protocol, 5NP, acupuncture detoxification, five-point ear acupuncture protocol—in 2013 when I was working on the frontline in community health, trauma recovery response in Louisville, Kentucky, where I lived at the time.

Acu-Detox, guided by Mutulu Shakur, originated, in New York in the 1970s in response to the heroin crisis in the Bronx, as part of the occupation of the Lincoln Hospital by the Black Panthers, The Young Lords, The Republic for New Afrika and Students for a Democratic Society.

Lincoln Hospital newsletter 1974

The simplicity of the protocol, with 5 acupuncture points in the outer ear, shifts the tone of conventional hierarchical practitioner/patient relationship, and allowed most anyone in the community (teens, aunties, grandparents) to learn and share this form of care with their loved ones. It could belong to anyone and everyone.

Laws are different state to state and province to province but in most places today, if you are not a licensed acupuncturist, you practice the protocol with tiny seeds (yes, from an actual plant and a very beautiful one, called Vaccaria) that rest inside of a small patch of band-aid like adhesive that sticks onto each of the 5 points of the outer ear.

Mateo Bernal, a friend of Molly’s, and founder of Louisville’s Community Supported Acupuncture (CSA) does not have the capacity to provide adequate accu-detox. He acknowledges its effectiveness but knows the best results for detox require auriculotherapy at least twice a day for six weeks. Molly introduced me to Mateo.

Barefoot Doctors

Inspired by Mao, he became an acupuncturist and has taught the healing practice all over the world. Mateo gave a presentation last month in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and provided an overview here of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and acupuncture:

TCM is an effective and safe technique that represents a consolidation of multiple lineages of traditional and folk medicine which happened under Mao. TCM is a medical system that was influenced by Daoism and Confucian cosmologies. Mao’s idea was to bring medicine to the vast expanses of mostly rural China, and began the “Barefoot Doctor” program, essentially training thousands of rural lay people in simple medical techniques to be able to “bring medicine to the people.

Mateo Bernal

Acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s natural “organizing centers” – areas that are saturated with stem cells and communicate with the rest of the body. Placing a needle at these points (organizing centers) induces a micro trauma and elicits a healing response locally as well as creating a small electrical current that follow fascia and can provoke a change elsewhere in the body. The modern anatomical discovery of the fascia explains the ancient meridian concept of interconnectedness in the body. 

Tip It Forward

Kammaleathhahh Livingstone, Founder and Director of Tip It Forward, uses ear seeding in her Louisville practice. Tip It Forward provides “equitable trauma-informed whole health care, to underserved Louisville families and neighborhoods.” Their mission: Whole Health For Every Body. Kammaleathhahh incorporates massage, mindfulness training, self-care education with ear seeding. She works out of a beautifully restored school bus. Many clients can’t find transportation to reach her, so she takes the bus to them. Her husband, Noah, an artist and musician, is her chief volunteer. Tip It Forward started in 2014, borne out of her original massage therapy business. “When people gave me tips “I funneled them into a fund for those who couldn’t afford the normal $70.00 an hour fee.”

Tip It Forward’s magic bus

Kammaleathhah Livingstone

A simple technique

Treatment with ear seeds disburden the body physically, mentally and emotionally.

According to Kammaleathhahh:

Clients  have reported better sleep, bursts of energy, mental clarity and feel better in their own body. It’s such a simple    technique. It’s cool to witness and listen to conversations. Ear seeding starts to move the group’s energy. I love doing it. It’s a great way for a provider to connect with people.

Ear seeding, Kamaleatthah Livingstone photo

During the Vancouver grief circle, with Ronnie Grigg, Ali Lohan, and a handful of others, I sipped tea and sat comfortably in the Listening Post on East Hasting Street. (Lohan is a 20-year veteran of community work in the neighborhood.) I was surprised at the quieting effects of the ear seeding. My anxious tendencies disappeared for a few hours. “Some folks stop by for 15 minutes on their work break,” Molly wrote, “others come in and stay for the full two hours. For some the treatment is so relaxing, they report, not having felt so calm, or at ease, in a very long time, or they may even experience a deeply restorative sleep.”

Grow your own seeds

I ordered seed packets and sowed seeds under lights in late March. Germination was slow even with heat mats. Leggy seedling plugs were transplanted in early May and poked along for weeks. I sowed additional seeds in the ground in mid-May. They germinated quickly and only lagged, by two to three weeks, flowering behind those started under grow lights. The gray-green foliage is attractive but not extraordinary, yet it provides a pleasant cover for the subtle white and pink blooms that began blooming in mid-June.

Cow soapwort (Vaccaria hispanica) blooms in Salvisa, Kentucky

Collective care together

We gather each week to sit alongside one another with love and inquiry, taking time to be present with grief in its unlimited forms, as it circulates in the community, and in the world, resting in silence, as it is needed, remembering what cannot be remembered on our own, listening for movement and other possibilities in collective care, together.

–Molly Bush

Red-hot pokers and snowball hydrangeas are making a splash now, but I had been missing the bigger picture for years. I was always curious about plants, but collecting and growing ornamental plants was sport. Molly taught me the healing powers of a garden.

My summer work in the garden—weeding, deadheading, tying up dahlias, and dragging hoses is unsparing. The garden brings me healing peace, somehow. Not every day, but if you stick with the work there is hope. Where my quieted mind goes, my aging body follows calmly.

My time with generous Health and Wellness Practitioners in Vancouver and Louisville in the last year has been rewarding. I am grateful for their devotion to cultivating resilient communities.

No one has asked me yet about my graceful cow soapwort blooms. They’re easy to miss, but I am quick to point them out.