Like giant wagon wheels silently foretelling
the coming of the 19th-century pioneers, some 20,000 human-formed
stone circles greeted migrating Europeans as they rolled westward.
Situated on and around the Great Plains of Saskatchewan, Alberta,
North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, today less than 200 of these
magnificent, mysterious wheels have survived.
For more than 5,000 years, natives of the Western Hemisphere
built sacred cairns surrounded by one or more concentric circles,
with spokes or stone lines radiating outward. Based on the number
four (representing the cardinal directions and thought to be
situated at energy vortexes), sacred circles were used all over the
world for ceremonies, as places of worship and to communicate
creation stories. Rich in symbolism and powerful as healing places,
these edifices stand testament to nature-based and deeply spiritual
Today’s medicine wheel gardens are based on the circle–the
sacred natural shape symbolic of the interconnections of all life.
Their round designs feature a central focus and four or more paths
that carve the garden into pie-shaped beds. Most are planted with
perennial and annual herbs, some featuring only medicinal herbs,
others encompassing a wide variety of culinary, ornamental, tea,
heirloom, cosmetic and healing herbs or indigenous herbs, grasses,
shrubs and cacti. Medicine wheel gardens are intensely personal,
and one’s choice of plants, materials and symbolic ornaments
reflects the inner garden of the spirit.
Here at my home, our medicine wheel is small–8 feet in
diameter–with culinary, tea, butterfly and medicinal herbs in
each of the four distinct beds. Herbs require six to eight hours of
sunlight daily, so the only absolute requirement is to situate the
wheel in the open with tall trees or structures to the north.
To create a medicine wheel, gather five marker stakes, a hammer,
measuring tape, compass and some string or lime. Rocks mark the
important yearly dates around the outside circle (see diagram
below), so a good-size rock pile also would be handy. To start the
wheel, drive a stake into the ground at the desired center point.
Using a compass, locate the four cardinal directions and mark each
with a stake 4 feet from the center. Mark the circle by joining the
four cardinal direction stakes with string.
Once the circle is marked, prepare the circle as you would any
herb bed. If the site is on a lawn, till or dig out the sod, being
careful to keep the five stakes in place. Mix in peat or compost, a
small amount of bone meal (or lime or wood ash) and topsoil. In
general, herbs tolerate a wide range of conditions but prefer
well-drained, slightly alkaline soil. Lay 24-inch-wide heavy
plastic landscaping cloth from each directional stake toward the
center to form paths. Spread gravel, shells, wood chips or other
natural material over the plastic and replace the four directional
stakes with large rocks. These represent the spirit keepers of each
direction and may be adorned with drawings or artifacts.
Use cedar logs, pot shards, bricks or smaller rocks to edge the
paths and define the circle. Replace the center stake with a large
rock, boulder, piece of driftwood, tree branch or other object with
significant meaning. Many traditional medicine wheels feature a
buffalo skull in the center because in several Native Plains
cultures of North America, it signifies creation or the center of
Select plants for each quadrant (see Page 15) and plant
hardened-off seedlings after the last frost, allowing plenty of
growing room (10 to 18 inches) between each. Because you will need
one to six plants of each kind, it may be more convenient to
purchase seedlings from a nursery than to start from seed. Never
use any chemicals on or near the medicine wheel garden.
The people who formed primitive medicine wheels displayed a
reverence for the Earth through sacred rituals, ceremonies,
everyday blessings, cleansing and visions. They gave thanks, asked
for guidance, used intuition and understood their world on many
levels. For us, there is much to learn from the medicine wheel. We
too can use it to pause and ponder, dream, reflect, pray and
Medicine Wheel Symbols
Most North American medicine wheels use 36 rocks to reflect the
sacred path that humans travel on Earth. A brief description of the
key stones that may be placed in a medicine wheel, and their
meanings follow. The diagram is a composite of several tribes’ and
• Center Stone–Stands alone and represents the Creator from
which all life flows; a buffalo skull commonly is placed or drawn
• North Stone–White buffalo totem (Waboose) represents a time
of hibernation, suspension and significant inner growth; time to
share knowledge, use restraint; the place for mental growth and
• East Stone–Golden eagle totem (Wabun) is the spiritual
direction; representing new beginnings and creativity.
• South Stone–Coyote totem (Shawnodse) symbolizes growth and
fulfillment; self-assurance and acceptance in humans; intense
growth in plants; place of emotions. This is the place to meditate
on relationships and matters of the heart.
• West Stone–Grizzly bear totem ( Mudjekeewis) represents
maturity and experience; it is the physical direction; some believe
healing comes from this direction.
• Moon Dates–Twelve stones around the perimeter indicate the
full moon cycles in a year. Use them to locate significant dates
for you and your family. Birthdays, marriages or other family
rituals might be celebrated by special plantings or by burying
crystals or other natural symbolic items.
Herbs for the Medicine Wheel Garden
As with the stones, totems and symbols in a medicinal garden,
the plant list is flexible and should reflect individual
preferences — the lists below are suggestions only. We have placed
the medicinal herbs in the northeast quadrant recognizing their
healing and cleansing qualities. Tea herbs grow in the southeast
bed between the spiritual and the intense growth paths. Similarly,
the culinary herbs lie in the southwest direction, to indicate
their importance to humans, both as physical and emotional
nourishment. Lastly, the butterfly herbs adorn the northwest
quadrant of the medicine wheel because of their brilliant symbol of
metamorphosis and inner growth.