Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rediscovering the Herbs In Our Own Backyard.

I was originally intending to start this blog in September, but I decided to do it now because one of the things I can post that many people will find useful is detailed information on the harvesting of a few herbs while I'm actually doing them. I can't do that for everything that I harvest. Carrying a camera around while I'm harvesting is too much of a distraction. For me, harvesting the medicines is a kind of ceremony, meditation and prayer. The camera makes it more difficult for me to be in the right head- and heart-space. Nevertheless, I intend to do this for a few herbs over the rest of the harvesting season, which for me ends around late November. I'll use herbs that will be good representatives of some of the different kinds of issues that need to be addressed. However, before I start that, I am going to post a few blogs that provide some important background information. These are things I believe people need to consider before they start wild harvesting herbs.

Every plant we meet is a medicine of some kind.

In my work I use about 200 different herbs. It's not necessary for me to use this many, but a big part of my work includes "rediscovering" many of the medicines that have been largely forgotten. It's sad that in most of the world dominated by modern Western culture, there are many medicinal plants that were once used by the indigenous people of those regions and by herbalists from European traditions that are now being used rarely or not at all. This is primarily because the popularity of herbs is market driven in our society. The natural health product (NHP) industry operates like any other industry. It is made up of companies for which the primary motive is to generate the largest amount of profit for the least amount of work. Up until the 1970's, this industry was fairly small and primarily made up of small and a few medium sized companies. Since the 80's the popularity of these products has grown at a significant rate. Consequently, NHPs have become big business. To survive in that environment you have to grow and change the way you do things. Many small companies became medium sized companies and some of the medium sized companies have become fairly big. This kind of thing doesn't happen without attracting the interest of larger corporations. What's been happening is that companies have been merging or being purchased by other companies, and some very large publicly traded companies have been buying up a lot of the industry. The primary motive for much of the industry has now become maximizing profits for shareholders.

You might be asking yourself where I'm going with this. I used to run a very small tincture manufacturing company from the late 80's to the mid 90's. One of the things that constitutes the reality of many very small companies is that their survival depends on quality and innovation. This is something that it is much easier to accomplish on a small scale and it is necessary because small companies often survive by selling relatively small quantities of a large number of products. I was selling some pretty innovative tincture formulations at that time. Eventually I got out of it because I realized that to survive I had to grow and I couldn't grow the way I needed to in that market without compromising my values and the quality of the products that I was producing. Things have become much worse since then. Both the regulatory paradigm and the increasing corporatization of the NHP industry have made it almost impossible for the small, folksy, grassroots companies that used to make up the bulk of the NHP industry in the 60's and 70's to survive. Most of them have either disappeared or become something very different.

Big companies don't like to sell lots of products that don't generate large profits. They want to make the largest amount of profit with the smallest number of products. So, for instance, if a company wants to introduce a new herbal product into the market, they aren't going to get very far by introducing another Echinacea product when there are already hundreds of them out there. Why put that much energy and expense into something that might in the end only capture about 5% of the market share of Echinacea products, even if you market it very well. The Echinacea market has been saturated for a long time. What will produce better results is to introduce something exotic that they know people will be interested in. So they find some exotic herb from China, India, Brazil, or some other country, and then they flood the market with advertisements and advertorials in the form of articles and sometimes books. They know that if they bombard people with information on some exotic herb from the rainforest that is supposed to be a "better" immune booster than Echinacea and simultaneously release it onto the market, consumers of natural health products, who are mostly still stuck in the old reductionistic medical paradigm and looking for magic bullets, will want to try it. Since the company that first introduces the product will be the only one out there for awhile, they will be able to gain a significant market share before the other companies catch up. If they play their cards right, they will be able to hold onto a significant market share of the product.

One of the consequences of this is that many valuable herbs that grow in North America are being forgotten. No one wants to sell something that grows everywhere and is readily accessible. You won't find them in stores and you won't even find them in most books on herbs. The people writing the books want to appeal to what is popular. So the herbs they write about are the ones that sell because that's what people are familiar with and interested in. Increasingly, the ones that sell aren't from this part of the world. If you look at the various herb books written in English in the last 50 years you will find that with each successive decade the percentage of European and North American herbs in most books has been decreasing while the percentage of herbs from India, China, South America, Africa and other tropical countries has been increasing.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) is a North American native that is largely forgotten.
It is common throughout most of North America south of the tree line.

When I go for a walk in the fields and woods where I live, I see hundreds of medicinal plants. However, if we are interested in finding out more about their medicinal uses, it is very difficult to find much information on the majority of them and the information that is available tends to be sparse and poor quality. This is even true in the research literature. In other parts of the world like India and China, a lot more research is devoted to medicinal herbs than in the West. The herbs that they are researching are those that are used in their local healing traditions like ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. Although significantly less than in other parts of the world, there is a fair bit of research being done on medicinal herbs in Europe. More than in North America. However, even in the West a significant amount of the research being done is still primarily oriented towards Chinese and Indian herbs. There seems to be a tendency among researchers when they get involved in research on herbs to want to do research on herbs for which a fair bit of research has already been done, rather than explore something new. Consequently, even in North America, there is very little research being done on North American herbs.

This has created quite a challenge for me as I come from a tradition of herbalists who believe that it is an essential part of our work to make our own medicines. This is necessary in order to ensure that they are the highest quality and are grown and/or harvested in a way that is respectful to the medicine and our Earth Mother. Life is about relationship. Everything in this life is related and the quality of our life is a direct result of the quality of our relationships. On this path of the herbalist, it is imperative to me that I have the deepest, most profound and respectful relationship with the plant medicines that I work with. This isn't possible unless I harvest and prepare the medicines myself. It means that I need to work with plants that are native, naturalized or can be grown where I live. I'm not suggesting that this is the only way to practice herbalism. However, this is the way I need to do it. This is my path.

Hairy willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) is a native of  temperate and
subtropical Eurasia. It is naturalized in northeastern North America.
There is very little information on this plant in the herbal literature.

Over the 26 years that I have been living herbalism, I have come to develop a deeper relationship with and understanding of the properties and uses of many local medicines. I have gradually replaced most of the exotic herbs that I used to use and teach my students about. I strongly encourage all herb enthusiasts to learn more about the plants that grow in the region where they live. It is more fulfilling to develop deeper relationships with the land where we live and the medicines that we use. It is also empowering to not be dependent on purchasing ready made products. From an ecological perspective, it also makes the most sense. We can never be certain how herbs that are not grown in our local region are being grown and harvested. Are they really organic? Are wild harvested plants being harvested in ways that potentially could wipe out the species or is damaging to the ecosystem where they live? Is information being stolen from indigenous people and used to make huge profits that don't benefit the people and communities who provided the information in the first place?

I am not saying that every company is raping the Earth and abusing indigenous people. Some operate with incredible integrity and use some of their profits to benefit indigenous people and protect the land where the medicines grow. Many also do their best to produce quality products, at least to whatever degree is possible on a commercial scale. However, unless we do our homework, we can never know for sure. It also doesn't make any sense to harvest from a limited, localized region and distribute it around the world. A small local resource can not be used to supply the world. It is great when the knowledge of indigenous people can be used to help benefit them and their community, but it makes more sense for them to work within limited, local markets. We also have to consider the energy expended to transport them around the world.

Learning about the herbs that grow in our own backyard can be very rewarding on many levels. It is also a means through which we can develop a greater awareness of our connection with the world in which we live. Everything in this life is interconnected and interdependent. In our society we tend to live as though we are somehow outside of or transcend the world we live in. This is one of the main reasons we suffer from so much physical, psychological, social, ecological and spiritual illness. It is also why it has become questionable whether we are going to survive as a species. Connecting with Nature (the macrocosm) and ourselves (the microcosm) is an essential part of the healing process. Herbal medicines can help to facilitate this process on many levels. Connecting with living herbs can help to deepen that healing process in ways that can not be achieved by swallowing dead, ground up herbs in capsules. In future posts I will provide more information about how we can get to know the plant medicines on a much more intimate level.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I look forward to more of your posts and learning from you!