Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Cultivated Vs. Wild Harvested Herbs

Here comes another one of the "background" posts that I mentioned. I took some photos when Monika and I were harvesting on Sunday and am going to do a post on harvesting blue vervain (Verbena hastata) soon, but I have a couple more background posts to do first. I'm doing a series of posts this week to kick this thing off. After that it will have to find its place in my schedule and the posts will be less frequent.

As I mentioned previously, the way I do herbalism necessitates that I make all of my own medicines. I also have a preference for using tinctures made from fresh herbs. That means that the group of herbs I work with are those that are native, naturalized or can be grown in northeastern North America, southern Ontario more specifically.

I don't grow many herbs. I've always primarily wild harvested them. When I tried growing them it was not very successful. I spend so much time wild harvesting that my garden tended to be neglected. I anticipated that and only planted hardy perennials, but over time my garden became over-run with plants such as goldenrods (Solidago spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare). Although I planted hardy species, most of them couldn't handle being shaded by these taller plants. I just don't have much time for "weeding" and don't use the roots or rhizomes of these species, so digging them up isn't useful for me.

As a compromise, I have introduced some native and naturalized species onto the land where I live. In some cases they don't proliferate to a degree that I will be able to harvest them here, but they are good friends and I like having them around. In other cases plants that I have introduced have expanded quite a bit, some of them enough that I can harvest part or all of what I need right here. The key is to understand the kind of soil, moisture and light conditions that each species prefers. This is something that is easily learned by spending a lot of time with them in places where they grow naturally.

Musk mallow (Malva moschata) is one of the plants that I
introduced and now grows wild on my property.

Another thing that I do is pay close attention to what is growing on my lawn. Knowing how to recognize plants when they are very small and being attentive when I am mowing allows me to mow around the species of herbs that I use when they arrive here. By selectively mowing around these species it gives them a competitive advantage over the grass and other plants by allowing them to grow to full size and reproduce. Some of them multiply very fast. I have about 3/4 acre of mowed space around my house with many trees and shrubs, so there is a variety of amounts of light and moisture available. This is important if we want to encourage a large number of species to grow. It's amazing how many species arrive on their own. After mowing my lawn this way for about 12 years, there are now 96 species of plants that weren't there before I started mowing in this way. Of these, 22 were introduced. About half of the introduced species escaped out of my garden, whereas I introduced the other half directly onto my lawn. There are 38 species that arrived naturally, and 10 that I introduced that are either plants that I don't use, or herbs that I use but are not growing in sufficient quantity for me to harvest them. On the other hand, there are 36 species that arrived naturally and 12 that I introduced that are growing in sufficient quantity that I can harvest directly from my lawn some or all of what I need of each of these species to prepare tinctures for my clinic from year to year. Regardless of how plentiful they are, I use all of them as teaching tools as I run my classes and clinics out of my house. My lawn is my herb garden!

The view from my front door. Things are not as lush as
they should be in early July. We've had the driest
and hottest spring that I can remember.

Some of the herbs that are now growing
wild in my back yard.

Many herbalists, including myself, recognize the superiority of wild over cultivated herbs. However, it doesn't have to be that way. Assuming that herbs are grown organically (I'm not going to get into the numerous issues associated with the use of commercially grown herbs), there are essentially four reasons why cultivated herbs are inferior:
  1. Cultivated herbs often aren't grown in conditions that each species prefers. Again this includes soil type and levels of moisture and light.
  2. Cultivated herbs are grown in monoculture on bare soil. Plants need to be interspersed with other species. This reduces diseases and insect damage, and provides a bit of competition. Bare soil doesn't exist in nature except after a major disturbance. It increases erosion and loss of moisture from the soil and is an invitation for any plant that likes disturbed soil to grow there.
  3. Cultivated herbs are babied. They are watered too much and "weeded" excessively. This may make them grow more lush and faster, but it doesn't make them stronger. In order to be strong and healthy, all living things need to struggle. When life is too easy they get weak. If there is a prolonged dry period, it's OK to water them. Too much stress will also weaken them. But we don't want to overdo it. We also want to take into account the amount of moisture that each plant requires. If it is a wetland plant and we can't plant it by a wetland, it will need more watering and probably some shade. Similarly, plants need competition. There are no "weeds", only opportunistic plants that take advantage when we screw up the balance of things or create habitats that they like. It's a good idea to keep out the invasive species or any plants that are large and will overshadow the herbs that we are growing. We also don't want to let our herbs get too overcrowded. Most of the "weed" species are medicinal anyway. We can harvest them as well. We just need to make sure that they aren't too competitive or plants that when harvested will result in too much disturbance of the herbs we are growing.
  4. Cultivated herbs are usually harvested incorrectly. They harvest too much of the plant at the wrong time of day and the wrong stage in the plants life-cycle. This is because the scale necessitates it, both in terms of when and how much of the plant is harvested. They need to harvest herbs in a way that results in the greatest yield, and when growing a very large number of plants that need to be harvested, it isn't possible to be very picky about when they are harvested.
If we take these things into consideration when we grow herbs (or vegetables), the herbs we grow will approximate the level of potency and vitality of wild harvested plants. There's also the option of wild gardening: introducing plants where we live (as long as they are not invasive species). Once established, we can encourage them along in various ways.

This discussion is very important to the issue of wild harvesting. Although wild harvesting is a very healing and empowering activity, as more people become interested in it there is a very great potential that we can seriously impact wild populations in a negative way. This can happen even if everyone does their best to wild harvest in an ethical way. It is inevitable because there are just too many people living on this planet. So learning from the wild plants what their needs are and applying it by wild gardening or organic gardening that takes into account the specific needs of each species is a very important alternative to wild harvesting. It will become even more important as more people become interested in making their own medicines.

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