Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thank You Weather Beings! Postscript.

After writing my last post the sky completely cleared and I went out for a walk with my dogs through the fields and woods around my house like I do most days in the late afternoon or early evening. Everything was wet and seemed to be covered in jewels wherever the late afternoon sun came streaming through the forest canopy. The sigh of relief was palpable all around me, as was the incredible beauty of the moment: the mists rising in the rays of the sun; the smell of fresh rain and wet soil; the coolness of the air; the deep greens of the foliage; the songs of the birds; the flying insects; the toads and salamanders hopping and scurrying along the ground...it doesn't get any better than this! These are the moments when every sensation, every experience is a constant reminder of how incredibly awesome it is to be alive!

The happy forest!

When I got back with my dogs I decided to write this postscript. First, I went back out with my camera to take a few photos. On the way back the next bank of clouds started floating in.

Here they come again!

As I write these words I can hear and see out my window the rain beginning to fall once more...

Thank You Weather Beings!

I am sitting here at my computer listening to the rain. The sound of thunder from a storm that just passed is fading off towards the east. I can also hear a new storm approaching from the west. In my heart I feel incredibly grateful. This past winter was the warmest and driest winter that I can remember. The temperature was above freezing during the day most of the winter and we had virtually no snow or precipitation of any kind. March and the first half of April were very warm for this region. Consequently, when I was walking in the woods in late April, the level of dryness was more like early to mid July.

Fortunately, it did cool down for a few weeks and we got some rain from mid April to mid May. But it wasn't enough. The level of moisture in the soil and in wetlands and rivers was already at a deficit because of the lack of snow melt. I was up at Lake Superior in May. I have never seen the water level so low. Not even in mid summer! In June the water level of Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) was also as low as I can remember except once a number of years ago in July after we had experienced a few dry years in a row.

The region where I live has been experiencing a fairly bad drought. Thankfully, it hasn't been nearly as bad as what they are experiencing in the central States and my heart goes out to all of the plant, animal and human people who live there. It seems to be part of human nature that we tend to take the many blessings of life for granted. We love to complain about the rain when it happens at an inconvenient time. But when we really need it, at least some people take notice. Farmers notice. On the other hand, some city folk are too self-absorbed in their artificial world. Maybe they get a bit annoyed at having to water their lawn more often.

Last week we finally got some relief. For about a day and a half we had pretty steady soaking rain. Later in the week we had a decent amount for another evening. Needless to say I was very happy, and so were all of the plants and animals that live around here. Today, since early afternoon, we have been getting a fair amount of rain again. The meteorologists are predicting it will continue well into the evening. I haven't had much faith in them for many years. Our weather patterns have become too changeable and unpredictable in the last few decades. I don't trust their weather predictions more than a few hours in advance. Since mid June they have predicted about 20 days of rain (40-60% chance) for this immediate area. We got a little bit of rain on one of them. That is, until last week and today. All I can say is I am very thankful to hear the voices of the Weather Beings echoing through the sky right now. Any amount of rain that they leave us will be greatly appreciated.

The view of a storm from my bedroom window very early in the morning on July 27th.

As an herbalist, I have always been very in tune with the cycles of nature and how they affect the plants and ecosystem where I live. The weather we have been having has a profound affect on the world around us. There are many things that are different this year. There are a lot more butterflies, but less flies, bees and wasps. It was so warm in March and early April that many trees bloomed much earlier than normal. Insects also emerged early. Then in April there were a couple of weeks where the temperature was below normal and there were some bad frosts that killed a lot of the flowers and pollinating insects. The trees and shrubs that managed to get through it and produce a decent amount of fruit then had to deal with the drought. We got some rain in April and May, but there was almost none in June and July and it was consistently hotter than normal. Many plants that produce fleshy fruits allowed them to dry up before they matured. They couldn't spare the water necessary for their fruits to develop. Where I live, the hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) actually produced a lot of fruit initially, but they dried up in early July and the few that continued to mature were affected by some kind of fungus.

During hot dry years, many plants accelerate their life cycle. They try to flower and produce seed before it gets so dry that they die or are forced to die back to preserve moisture. This year most of the plants in the areas that I have visited have been two to three weeks ahead of schedule, sometimes more. For example, I harvest wild peppermint (Mentha x piperita) a week or two after it goes into flower. This year it was ready for harvesting last week. In the areas where I harvest peppermint it is usually ready around the second or third week of August.

Wild peppermint (Mentha x piperita) on August 5, 2009.
It is still a few weeks away from flowering.

Drought doesn't just speed up the life cycle of plants and reduce production of fleshy fruits. When the soil is too dry, plants lose more moisture through respiration than they can replenish. At that point it is better to allow their aerial parts to die in hope of being able to preserve enough moisture in their roots and rhizomes until the soil is moist again. Unfortunately, if they die back too soon they may not have produced enough of a store of carbohydrates to keep them alive until the following spring. Plants with shallow roots are particularly susceptible. You can see that by looking at people's lawns. Grasses tend to have very shallow roots. Consequently, during a drought they tend to die back first. People accelerate this process by cutting their lawn. It isn't good to cut the lawn during a drought. The soil becomes more exposed to the drying effect of the sun. Taller grasses and other plants also tend to trap moisture and create a cooler micro climate close to the soil. If we do cut the grass, it shouldn't be cut shorter than 10-12 cm (4-5 inches). It is best not to cut it much shorter than that even when it isn't so dry. Nevertheless, most people cut their lawn way too short. During drought conditions, the grass will turn brown pretty quick, but plants with deeper roots like white clover (Trifolium repens), birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) will stay green much longer. Driving around in the rural areas near where I live last week it was obvious how much of any given lawn was made up of these plants because the grass was brown but they were still green.

Plants in woodland areas are particularly sensitive to drought conditions. Woodland plants generally need rich, moist soils. The shade of the tree canopy tends to keep the soil more moist than in other ecosystems (except wetlands), but prolonged heat and lack of rain will eventually result in dry woodland soils. Once more, plants with shallow roots and rhizomes will tend to die back early. In the woods where I live, many of the shallow rooted species have begun to or have already died back, such as mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and Virginia waterleaf (Hydrophyllum virginianum). Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) also has a shallow rhizome, but because it is fleshy and tuberous, it holds more moisture and can resist the dry conditions for a bit longer. However, even the bloodroot is now showing signs of stress. One interesting anomaly is wild ginger (Asarum canadense). It has very shallow rhizomes that mostly sit on the surface of the soil, but it is even more drought resistant than bloodrood. This is because its rhizomes are a bit on the fleshy side; its leaves are very hairy, which helps prevent evaporation during the day and trap moisture at night; and its rhizomes, which mostly rest on the surface, can also take advantage of the dew at night.

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) looking more like what it should look like in September or October.
Note the wild ginger (Asarum canadense) in the bottom left corner is still green.

When a plant species shows signs of drought stress we don't want to harvest it. We only harvest from plant populations that are strong and healthy. Many plants can live in a range of conditions, particularly with regard to the amount of sunlight that they receive. For instance, dandelion is particularly versatile. It can live in open woodlands where it gets diffuse light all the way to open fields where it receives direct sunlight 80-100% of the day. What is more common are plants that can live in a slightly narrower range of conditions such as transition areas where they receive as little as 20-30% direct sunlight, as well as in open fields. For these plants, during drier years it is better to harvest them in areas where they receive more shade. During cool, wet summers it is best to harvest them in full sun. It is usually easy to tell which ones are the healthiest during any given set of conditions because they will look it. Similarly, this year it will be better to harvest blue cohosh in low lying moister woodland areas where it isn't showing signs of drought stress and dies back no earlier than mid September.

The rain has now stopped and the sun is streaming through. I hope we get some more rain tonight as predicted. In the mean time, I am very grateful for what we have received.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Awe is Awesome

Here's a couple of interesting links that relate to some recent research:




Once more, this is basically common sense. But when it is "verified" by research, it gives it a level of credibility in the minds of much of our population.

I tend to preach this like a broken record (CD?) and have probably already stated it in at least one other posting in this blog, but a major cause of what is out of balance in our life, both individually and as a society, is our disconnection from ourselves and Nature. These are really two sides of the same coin because we are part of Nature and intimately connected to all things, whether we acknowledge it or not. Connecting with Nature isn't just something that is cool to do occasionally when we have some spare time. It is a basic human need!

Herbs have their place in the healing process, but if healing is what we seek, they must be used within the context of a healthy life. Connecting with Nature is an essential part of a healthy life. Most people would benefit immensely if they got out into a natural environment on a regular basis. That means getting out there and connecting, not racing through, listening to music on headphones, or chit chatting with another person or on a cell phone. We need to learn how to really be present in Nature. This is an important stepping stone to being fully present in our life as a whole. It is an essential part of being in harmony within ourselves. It's important that we learn how to be in the moment and not experience life through our daily ruts, but like we are experiencing it for the first time. That includes not just the great vistas, sunsets and rainbows, but everything. We live in a world of such immense beauty! It's all around us but we usually don't perceive it. We need to come back into that place of awe. If we choose to, with a bit of effort to break out of our old ways of experiencing things, we can potentially be in awe all of the time. That is a major part of the path to a healthier, happier, more rewarding life. In order to get there, we need to stop racing around collecting endless stuff and doing endless things, and spend more time just being. This requires some major readjustments and reprioritizing in our lives in order to make the space and time available; to recognize that the quality of our experiences is vastly more important than the quantity. One of the best ways to begin this process is to get out into Nature and fully embrace and experience life: no goals; no time limits; and leave the damn cell phone behind!

Winter sunset, Lake Huron.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Making Medicine, Part 2 of 5: Preparing Blue Vervain to Make a Tincture

This is the second in a series of five posts in which I am using the process of wild harvesting and making a fresh herb tincture of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) as an example to explain in detail the process of making medicine. Part 1 in this series was posted on July 9th.

In my practice I primarily use tinctures made from fresh herbs, so the next step is to use the blue vervain that we harvested to make a tincture. When you make as much tinctures as I do, you appreciate good equipment. I have experimented with a variety of tools over the years and will discuss some of them here. I am also going to use the process of preparing blue vervain tincture as an example to explain some of the important details regarding making tinctures.

The basic idea is that we want to separate the more potent from the less potent parts of the portion of the plant that we harvested, chop it up and put it in a bottle with the appropriate menstruum (pronounced MEN-strew-um: the liquid that we use to absorb and preserve the constituents of the herb). As an herbalist, it is important to me that the way I prepare a tincture is consistent so that I know that the tincture of any particular herb that I make from year to year is very similar in potency. There are factors that affect the potency of the herb, like weather conditions, that I can't control. However, if the weather conditions are particularly incompatible with the requirements of a particular herb in a particular year, I won't harvest that herb. What I can control is how I prepare the tincture. In order to accomplish this, the portion of the plant that I use needs to be consistent as must the amount of herb that I use for any given volume of menstruum.

When using fresh herbs, I recommend a 1:5 potency. This means that 1 g of herb is used for every 5 ml of menstruum. There are herbalists who recommend a higher potency for various reasons. However, I disagree with using a higher potency than 1:5 for fresh herb tinctures. I will do a detailed post explaining why I prepare tinctures the way I do at some point in the future, but the bottom line is that 1:5 fresh herb tinctures work and a higher potency isn't necessary. Also, the greater the potency that we use above 1:5, the greater the amount of herb we end up using in order to get the same results. For reasons related to the chemical characteristics of the constituents of an herb, using twice as much herb doesn't make a tincture that is twice as strong therapeutically. For example, a 1:2.5 potency tincture should be twice as strong as a 1:5 tincture because we are adding the same amount of herb to half as much menstruum (2.5 ml instead of 5 ml). If this were true, then when we use a 1:2.5 tincture we should get the same results using a dosage that is half as much as the dosage we use for a 1:5 tincture. However, it doesn't work out that way. We need to use more than half as much of a 1:2.5 tincture to get the same results. This is because as we add more herb to the same volume of menstruum, at some point the percentage of constituents that actually dissolves in the menstruum starts to drop off. In addition, for most herbs it is physically impossible to get enough herb into a given volume of menstruum above a 1:5 or 1:4 potency. This necessitates methodologies such as grinding the herbs, percolation or macerating tinctures more than once, which are more time and energy intensive, often require the use of expensive equipment, and lead to a greater level of degradation of the constituents of the herb. Therefore higher potencies are unnecessary and wasteful. For home use, you don't need to be as accurate with your measurements as I am recommending here, but the more accurate the better.

The equipment I use for preparing fresh blue vervain tincture.

In preparing a tincture we need to be able to measure the amount of herb that we put into each bottle. For this I use a triple beam balance, but digital scales will do as long as they are calibrated to 1 g increments or smaller. We also need to know how much herb to use per bottle. Traditionally the way we calculate this is to first measure how much fluid the bottles we are using contain when they are filled to 0.5 cm (1/4 inch) from the top. It is necessary to measure this because the volume indicated for the bottle is usually not based on filling it this close to the top. Beakers and measuring cups are not accurate enough for this. It is necessary to use something that is calibrated in 1 ml increments. This usually necessitates the use of a graduated cylinder.

Once we have an accurate read on how much fluid our bottles contain, to approximate how much herb we will need for a 1:5 tincture we divide the total by 6, that is for 1 part herb plus 5 parts menstruum. This is not 100% accurate because herbs are usually less dense than water and not all herbs are of equal density. However, although this is an approximation, it is surprisingly accurate. It is sufficient for most situations. The key is to get as accurate a measurement as possible of the volume of the bottles we are using. I have done extremely detailed calculations for all of the tinctures that I make and, with only a couple of exceptions, this approximation is accurate to within 1-2%, which is good enough.

The harvested portion of one plant.

Once we know how much herb we need per bottle, it is necessary to separate the usable from non-usable parts of the portion of the herb that we harvested. When harvesting the aerial parts of plants (the parts that grow above the ground), this usually means that a portion of the stalk isn't used. This is because the primary purpose of the stalk is to hold up the leaves and flowers. As a result, the stalk tends to contain mostly dense fibrous tissue and a much lower proportion of the therapeutically active constituents. The amount of stalk that has to be removed can be anywhere from 0-100%, depending on the plant and the portion of the plant that is harvested. For most plants from which we harvest the aerial parts we harvest the terminal 25-40%  of the plant and remove 80-90% of the primary stalk and 60-75% of any well-developed secondary stalks. The specifics depend on the species of plant and at what stage we are harvesting it. The portion of the stalk that is usable tends to be the new growth that is less stiff and more succulent. To determine the usable portion for a particular species, we start at the lowest part of the stalk, cut off a small section and taste it. Then cut a similar sized section about 20% further up the stalk, then at 40%, 60%, 80%, and finally the top portion. Finally, we taste a piece of a leaf. The point on the stalk where the flavour of the stalk is about 2/3 to 3/4 as strong as the flavour of the leaf is the point at which the potency of the stalk is strong enough to use. We remove all of the stalk below that point and use all of the stalk above that point. The reason that the taste of the stalk can be used to determine its potency is because its flavour corresponds to the concentration of many of its active chemical constituents. For plants that are relatively bland in flavour because they have little to no aromatic, bitter or pungent constituents, there isn't much difference in the flavour of the different aerial parts of the plant. Therefore we just use the portion of stalk that is less stiff and more succulent.

Blue vervain is unusual in that the flavour of the entire stalk is pretty strong. This is because its flavour is primarily due to chemical constituents called iridoids and the iridoids are in a fairly high concentration in all of the aerial parts of the plant. Nevertheless, for the most part I still only use the less stiff and more succulent parts of the stalk. Overall I remove a little bit less stalk than is typical for most herbs. However, with this herb, if the amount that I harvested is a bit short, I can just use a bit more stalk rather than having to harvest more plants.

The part that is used (above) and the amount of stalk that is not used (below).
This is the same plant that was shown in the previous picture

The next step is removing the unused stalk from all of the plants that we harvested. This can be done with a knife or scissors, but since we tend to cut the stalk at the point where it becomes softer and less fibrous, for most herbs the stalks can be easily torn with our fingers, which takes less time. Once we've separated all of the usable portions of the plants that we harvested, we need to weigh them to make sure that we put the right amount in each bottle. I use four standard sizes of bottles. The blue vervain that I harvested was intended to prepare the largest size, which is a 950 ml bottle. However, the volume of bottles that are narrower at the top than the full width of the bottle are usually calculated to about the top of the shoulder. When the bottles I use are filled to 0.5 cm from the top, they actually hold 990 ml. To determine how much of the usable portion of the herb that we need to use for a bottle this size, we divide 990 by 6 (for a 1:5 tincture), which is 165 g. Although our proportions are made up of 1 part herb, which is measured in grams, and 5 parts menstruum, which is measured in millilitres, this conversion works because the density of menstruum is almost the same as for water. The density of water is 1 g/ml, so 5 ml of water is the same as 5 g of water.

The amount of herb material that is used to prepare one bottle
(990 ml) of tincture with the removed stalks below.

When I am harvesting any herb, it is important for me to determine in advance how much that I am going to need. That means the number and size of the bottles of tincture that I need to prepare, how much of the usable portion of the herb I need per bottle, and approximately how much extra that I need to harvest to account for the unused portion of the plant. I don't want to be short or I might have to go out again to harvest the same herb. In some cases, due to the number of herbs that I need to harvest, weather conditions, etc., harvesting an herb a second time might not be possible. So I might run short before I am able to prepare it again the following year. The flip side is that I don't want to over-harvest because it is wasteful and disrespectful to the medicine. When I'm out harvesting I bring a small spring scale that is accurate to within 10 g, so I can make sure I harvest the right amount. I will always harvest just a bit more than I need so that I don't accidentally run short. Any small amounts of extra herb I dry and use for teas.

After I processed 165 g of the usable portion of the blue vervain to make my bottle of tincture, the amount of stalk that I had removed was 51 g. That means that I had to harvest an extra 31% of the herb to get the amount that I needed. If I had harvested the blue vervain a bit later, the proportion of unused stalk would have increased because as the plants mature the stalk gets stiffer and the amount of stalk between the nodes (the points where the leaves join the stem) gets longer.

Once we have measured the appropriate amount of the usable parts of an herb, we need to chop it up. For this we need a fairly large hardwood cutting board and some kind of knife. Over the years I have experimented with just about every kind of knife for chopping the many herbs that I use. Some herbs are best chopped using a cleaver, a few require a serrated knife, but for most herbs the best knife by far is the mezzaluna. This is a curved knife with a handle at each end (see the first photograph in this post). When used correctly, it can finely chop herbs much more quickly than other knives. This is important because the process of chopping our herbs requires finding a balance between two opposing requirements. On the one hand, the more finely we chop the herb, the greater the surface area that we create that allows its constituents to dissolve in our menstruum. On the other hand, the more finely chopped our herb and the longer it takes to do it, the more it is exposed to air which results in greater oxidation of its chemical constituents. Most constituents are less potent when oxidized and in some cases it may even change their properties. It is true that a few constituents are more potent when oxidized, but this is not the case for the vast majority of them. In addition, they will have plenty of opportunity to oxidize after we press the herb, the final stage in making a tincture. For the best results, we want to minimize the amount of oxidation that takes place before and while the herbs are macerating. Maceration is the process of soaking the herbs in our menstruum. With the mezzaluna, I can chop an herb a little bit finer than I would with other kinds of knives in about half the time. It doesn't get any better than that! I really love those special tools that significantly increase the efficiency of the work that I do. The mezzaluna is one of those special tools. In choosing a mezzaluna, it is important that it be a larger one, 25-30 cm (10-12 inches) wide. Do not skimp on quality. Purchase one that is professional quality. The best ones are made in Italy or Portugal using high quality molybdenum vanadium steel. The ones made in China are not good. Also, only use the ones that have a single blade. One of my students once bought one with a double blade. She though this would make it easier. All it did was slow things down because the herbs kept getting caught between the blades. I don't believe they even make double bladed models in Europe.

Using a mezzaluna takes a bit of practice. Basically we hold the handles and rotate the blade back and forth over the herbs. Each time we do that we twist the blade to change the angle very slightly, first one way and then the opposite way on the next stroke. This allows it to move forward across the cutting board. What works best is to cut moving forward down the board, then begin at one of the front corners and cut diagonally in one direction, then cut diagonally in the other direction from the other front corner. Keep rotating between cutting in these three directions until the herb is chopped the right amount. It is very important that the cutting board is oriented so that the grain of the wood is running down the board away from us. Never use a mezzaluna to cut parallel to the grain of the board. This is because when we slightly twist the blade at the end of each stroke, if we are cutting with the blade parallel to the grain, it digs between the layers of wood. Over time it will start cutting out thin slivers of wood which will significantly reduce the life of the cutting board.

This is the what the herb should look like when it is sufficiently chopped.

This is the end of Part 2 of this series. In Part 3 I'll discuss making a blue vervain maceration.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Some Helpful Suggestions for Losing Weight

Here's some recent research concerning weight-loss strategies:


These tips can be helpful to many people who are trying to lose weight. The growing number of people who are obese in Western society, especially North America, is a major concern. Keeping our weight within the ideal weight range for our body (which is different for different people) is an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. In spite of the growing body of literature and media attention on the subject, obesity is on the rise as are the many chronic health conditions to which it is a contributing factor.

Along with the growth of obesity within our population there has been a parallel growth of a whole industry of fad diets and dieting products that prey upon a population who are always looking for quick fixes. When it comes to weight management, there are no quick fixes. Losing weight requires work consisting primarily of educating ourselves about diet and health and changing the unhealthy diet and lifestyle patterns that we have been practicing. When it comes to losing weight, there are three principles that need to be kept in mind:

  1. It is best to lose weight slowly and consistently.
  2. It is essential to reduce our calorie consumption and eat a good, healthy, natural diet.
  3. It is essential to increase our activity level.
  4. A "diet" is not some extreme eating regimen that we follow in order to lose weight and then go back to eating as we were before. A diet is simply what we eat. Any diet that we need to follow in order to lose weight is going to have to be the diet that we continue to follow (or something similar) in order to keep the weight off. Therefore it must be doable in the long run.
A lot more can be said on this complex subject. For those who are interested, here is a link to an article that I wrote on weight loss a few years ago for Vitality Magazine:


More Bad News Concerning Phthalates

Here's another interesting link from the recent research literature:


According to a recent study, phthalates may be associated with an increased risk of diabetes in women. This in a new addition to the growing list of negative health consequences associated with the consumption of phthalates, which are one of the many synthetic environmental toxins that are hormone disruptors.


Phthalates are found in plastics, especially in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) such as plastics designated with the number "3". They are also found in many commercial cosmetics and household products. Phthalates accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and can also be found in significant amounts in dairy products and meats. Eating less dairy products and meats, which is a good practice for many reasons, and only eating those that are certified organic when they are consumed is one way to reduce consumption of phthalates. Also, it is best not to consume any food or beverage that is packaged in a #3 plastic, and to avoid the use of cosmetics that contain them. The more "natural" cosmetics that are available may contain less or none, but many of these products aren't very natural even if they are marketed as such. Also, although there is a growing trend to list ingredients on these kinds of products, regulations in most jurisdictions do not require full disclosure of ingredients on cosmetic products. So it's best to do some research and make sure that the products are being manufactured by a reputable company that does disclose all of the ingredients on product labels.

A good herbal detox and juice fasting can help to eliminate toxins like phthalates that accumulate in our body tissues. However, this needs to be accompanied by appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce our exposure to toxicity on a daily basis, as well as an increase in aerobic exercise for those who don't get enough. These are two sides of the same coin. As always, herbs will only work efficiently if we address the dietary and lifestyle patterns that contribute to the development of our health concerns as much as possible.

For anyone interested in a bit more information on herbal detoxification, here's a link to an article that I wrote a couple of years ago for Vitality Magazine:


Monday, July 9, 2012

Making Medicine, Part 1 of 5: Wild Harvesting Blue Vervain

This is the first of a series of five posts in which I am going to use the process of wild harvesting and making a fresh herb tincture of blue vervain (Verbena hastata) as an example to explain in detail the process of making medicine. You'll have to excuse me for having changed the title a few times. As I've been writing these posts, they've become longer and more detailed and less about blue vervain and more about making medicine in general. There are a lot of aspects of this process that I realized needed to be explained in detail. So this has been an evolving process.

A week ago, Monika (Monika Ghent, my partner and the Living Earth online course supervisor) and I went harvesting blue vervain. I decided that this would be a good herb to feature in in this series because the process is pretty typical for an herb for which we harvest the aerial parts. Also, being a wetland species, it allows me to address a couple of issues that are particular to harvesting in wetlands.

The home of blue vervain (Verbena hastata).

Back in the early 80s when I first started exploring wild spaces and eventually herbs in the rural areas beyond the boarders of Toronto where I lived, I used to look at detailed maps of the surrounding area to look for wild spaces where there weren't any roads and hopefully no development (that was before the Internet and Google Maps). When I found something that looked promising, my friends and I would drive around the area to get a sense of the landscape and determine if there were any trails accessing the area. In the winter I used to hike along the course of a creek near where I lived by walking on the ice. One winter day when we were exploring a new area I suggested that it would be easier and more interesting to access the area by walking on the ice along a river that flowed through. We didn't get as far following the meandering course of the river, but we didn't care. I have always preferred quality over quantity. After that day doing this became a regular activity for me. Sadly, for the last decade or more the winters in my area have been much warmer and the rivers rarely freeze. Occasionally when they do the ice is usually too thin to walk on.

The summer following our first river ice excursion we were heading out to explore a provincial park not too far away. We wanted to avoid most of the people and explore areas that weren't easily accessible by trails. I suggested that we walk up the river. So we put on old running shoes without socks and walked up through the river. We called it "water walking" and I've done it ever since. In the early days the only drag about it was the water sloshing around for awhile in our running shoes when we left the river. For a couple of years in the early 90s I took a bunch of workshops in New Jersey with Tom Brown. The first time I was down there a few people were wearing these really cool sandals that had adjustable Velcro straps. They were Tevas of course! They weren't very common yet and I had never seen them before. I realized at once that these were the perfect all-terrain footwear for use in warmer weather, and in particular for water walking. They were the one piece that was missing from water walking. I bought my first pair 20 years ago. I'm still on my second pair. That's pretty amazing considering they are about the only footwear I use (when I'm not barefoot) during the warmer months of the year. I wear them through just about everything when I'm harvesting, hiking, canoeing or camping.

So now let's get back to wild harvesting. Wetland plants often live in areas that are not easily accessible. The plant growth can be very thick and difficult to get through. There can also be deep muck that is hard to walk in. There is also a particular kind of grass that grows in wetlands that we call "sticky grass". I don't know what species it is. Grasses can be difficult to identify and I haven't devoted any energy to learning the many grasses because I don't use any of them. What is particular about sticky grass is that it has a row of tiny barbs along the mid vein of the blade that slices your flesh. If you walk through it with exposed skin you will get numerous cuts that are like paper cuts. It's not very pleasant. With these challenges in mind, in the early years when I first started wild harvesting the medicines I realized that the best way to access wetland plants is by water walking along the course of a creek or river, or along the shore of a lake. Of course it only works when the water isn't too deep. Another concern is that we have to be very careful not to step on any flat rocks because there are often fish, crayfish or other aquatic animals living underneath them.

Monika water walking while we were harvesting blue vervain.

So on July 1st Monika and I headed off water walking down a river that is not too far from where I live. Monika needed to harvest blue vervain and yarrow (Achillea millefolium), both of which are common along the banks of the river. That day I only needed blue vervain.

Whenever I pass through wild spaces I am always keeping track of lots of information: How healthy is the ecosystem? Which plants are growing there? At what stage are they in their life cycle on that particular date of that particular year? Do any of the medicines I use grow there and, if so, what is the maximum sustainable amount that can be harvested? What mammal, bird and other animal species live there? When I get home I record all of this information in a data base and update it every time I'm in the area. In this way whenever I need to harvest a particular herb, I have a quick reference to locations where it grows and approximately how much I can harvest at each location.

While I'm moving through the landscape I keep my mind quiet and tend to use my peripheral vision most of the time so that I can be aware of as much of what is going on around me as possible. Fairly soon after we started down the river last week I noticed a flash of red way off to my right in a clearing between some cedars. To my surprise I noticed some Oswego tea (Monarda didyma) that was just starting to bloom. It was early for these parts, but most species are blooming two to three weeks early this year because of the heat and the drought we have been experiencing. Oswego tea isn't very common in southern Ontario. It is much more common south of the Great Lakes. It only grows in a couple of the areas that I frequent and this was only the second time that I had seen it in bloom. Luckily I had my camera with me that day. In our area wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is fairly common and that is the species that I use. When I first started using wild bergamot there was almost no information on it in the literature. There was a bit of information on Oswego tea and the few references to wild bergamot usually just said that it was very similar to Oswego tea. It is not uncommon for plants in the same genus to have very similar properties. Because several sources had made this comparison, I had assumed that they probably taste very similar. Then one day a few years ago Monika and I were walking along a deer trail on the bank of the same river further upstream from where we were last weekend. As we were walking I picked up a strong scent of wild mint (Mentha arvensis). I looked around where we had been walking and all I saw were some baby wild bergamot plants. I tasted a leaf and sure enough that was where the smell was coming from. I then realized that they weren't wild bergamot (although at that stage they looked almost identical) but rather Oswego tea. So it turns out that although Oswego tea is very closely related to wild bergamot, it tastes almost identical to wild mint. That means that the components of its essential oil are more similar to wild mint and therefore its medicinal properties are also probably closer to wild mint than wild bergamot. It seems that the information I had read was based on an assumption, not on experience.

Oswego tea (Monarda didyma), one of the friends I met that day.

Blue vervain grows along the edges of wetlands, rivers and lakes. In my area it rarely grows in large groups. It tends to grow singly or in groups of a few plants along the edge of the water or a bit further back in areas where it is wet in the spring and the soil remains fairly moist through the summer. As a result, it is necessary to travel some distance along the edge of the water to get a decent amount, especially since we don't harvest all of the plants.

A group of blue vervain plants growing along the bank of the river.

Blue vervain can tolerate a wide range of light conditions. It prefers to grow in locations where it will get direct sunlight 20-100% of the day, although 40-80% is ideal. In very hot dry years when the water level where the plant is growing is very low, it is best to harvest it in areas where it gets direct sunlight 20-40% of the day. On the other hand, in cool wet years it is best to harvest this herb in areas where it gets direct sunlight 80-100% of the day.

On this trip we were able to harvest a larger percentage of the plants that were ready because it hadn't been flowering for very long and only about a third of the plants were blooming. This year I only needed to harvest enough to make 2 litres of tincture because I made extra last year. I had already prepared 1 litre a couple of days earlier from a different location. Monika needed to make 2 litres as well. We had to water walk about 2 km along the river to get enough for both of us. In years when I need a fair bit I usually have to harvest at two or three locations to get what I need.

A closer look at the flowering spikes.

Blue vervain is harvested at the beginning of it's flowering period. The best time is from a few days to a week after it goes into flower. However, since all of the plants don't go into flower at the same time, generally the best time is one to two weeks after the first plants go into flower. In the area where I live, that is usually the second week of July. It was earlier this year because of the very hot, dry weather. It can be harvested a bit later, but like most plants the internodes (the sections of stalk between the nodes, the points where the leaves are attached to the stalk) get longer. This results in a higher stalk to leaf and flowering spike ratio and therefore a greater amount of stalk that needs to be discarded when we separate the usable from unusable portions of the herb. Also, the later we harvest it, the less time the plant has to produce more flowering stalks and reproduce. Typically we harvest the terminal 30-40% of the herb because this is the most potent part and it minimizes the amount of stress on each plant to regrow.

Me demonstrating how much of the plant to harvest. I am standing in shallow water in the river
and the plant is on the bank, so it looks about 6-8 inches taller than it actually is.

We had a great time water walking that day. It was quite warm, but a few degrees cooler than it had been. The sun was very strong, but travelling through the river there was a fair bit of shade. Water walking is great on hot days because walking through the water helps to cool us down. We also enjoyed the songs of many bird species and met a few friends along the way, both in and out of the water.

Some of the other visitors to the river on that day were
Canadian tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio canadensis) and...

...white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). We didn't see any deer but we heard them
bounding off as we approached. I usually only see them when I'm harvesting alone.

This is the end of Part 1 of this series. Later this week I'll post Part 2, in which I will be discussing preparing the blue vervain that I harvested in order to make a fresh herb tincture. In the third post I will discuss making the maceration; in the fourth, different kinds of equipment that are available for pressing and filtering tinctures; and in the fifth, the actual process of pressing and filtering the maceration to make the tincture. In the last post I will also provide information on the properties and uses of blue vervain.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wild Harvesting Herbs

Wild harvesting herbs comes with a lot of responsibility. It is essential that we harvest in an ethical way. There are many levels to what constitutes "ethical" in this context. There are ecological issues, like not over-harvesting or doing anything that harms the ecosystem where the herbs are growing. This includes other plants and animals as we move through the landscape. There are social issues, such as our responsibility to ensure that the plants we are harvesting continue to be plentiful for use by future generations. There are also spiritual issues, such as cultivating right relationship with the medicines and our Earth Mother. All of these come into play and are interrelated.

As more people develop an interest in herbs and making their own medicines, growing herbs becomes increasingly more important. Many herbs have become rare or extinct in much of their former range because of wild harvesting on a commercial scale. The average person or even herbalist does not need to harvest herbs on that kind of scale, but as more people do it the results are potentially the same.

This reminds me of the growing popularity of the local food movement. The idea of eating locally has many important social and ecological benefits, and I strongly support it in principle. Unfortunately, one of the negative consequences of this orientation is a growing popularity of wild harvested foods. I cringe every time I see wild leeks (Allium tricoccum), fiddleheads (Matteuccia struthiopteris), various wild mushrooms and other wild harvested foods at farmers markets or in supermarkets. They are becoming more popular each year. It is a lot easier to wipe out a wild plant or fungus species by harvesting it for food than for medicinal use because wild foods appeal to a greater proportion of the population and are consumed in much larger quantities. As a result, some local food enthusiasts are promoting practices that are ecologically and ethically destructive. They look upon wild species as free for the taking. Some of them are probably following some ethical guidelines, but they are still contributing to the growing popularity of these foods which leads to more harvesting and more people getting involved who are of questionable ethics.

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) fiddleheads.

I have often witnessed the results of unethical wild harvesting. For instance, although I wild harvest, walk, canoe and camp in hundreds of different locations in southern and central Ontario, I have only come across wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) in very few of them. In every instance they were in provincial parks and conservation areas where harvesting is illegal. Wild ginseng is protected in Ontario anyway because it is rare. I do not harvest it myself. Nevertheless every plant that I have ever come across in my travels has been harvested by some unscrupulous people. I currently don't know any places where it grows.

Although I strongly recommend that people who want to make their own medicines grow their herbs whenever possible, there is still a place for wild harvesting on a small scale if it is done in an ethical manner. Getting to know the medicines in the places where they grow wild is also an excellent way to develop a deeper relationship with them and Nature. This is important even for people who are using commercial herbal products. In fact, it is especially important for them since it provides them with an opportunity to interact with living plants. Observing herbs in their natural environment can also provide us with important information about the kinds of conditions in which they prefer to grow, which is essential if we want to grow them ourselves.

As an herbalist, I am extremely anal about three aspects of my work:

1. The quality of the medicines that I use.

There are no ends to which I won't go to ensure that the medicines I use are the highest quality that I can possibly prepare, both pharmacologically and energetically. I am constantly reassessing what I am doing and remaining open to ways that it can be improved. This means harvesting them from the healthiest plants growing in the habitat that is ideal for them; harvesting them when the conditions (temperature, sun, rainfall) are best; harvesting them at the preferred stage in their life cycle and time of day; using only the most potent parts of the plants; and preparing them in a way that maximizes their potency and minimizes any degradation of their chemical constituents.

As I mentioned in a previous post, for me all aspects of harvesting, preparing, storing and using the medicines are a sacred act. I treat this work like a ceremony, meditation and prayer. At all times I am in a place of gratitude and respect, with a clear intent to prepare medicines that are as pure and potent as possible that are intended to provide those who seek the medicines with whatever healing they require physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I don't want to fill the medicines with the scattered energies of mental chatter or with negative emotions. It is essential that my mind is quiet and my heart open when I am doing this work.

2. The quality of my relationship with the medicines.

For me the medicines are not things, they are living, healing beings. In my interactions with them I come from a place of humility, respect and reverence. That may sound pretty airy fairy, but anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I am one of the least airy fairy people you will meet. I've always found that the mental attitude that works best for me in life is to be an open-minded sceptic. I don't easily buy into things that I am unfamiliar with or don't make sense to me, but I also know that anything is possible. What we know and experience is such an infinitesimally small fraction of what is out there. One of the biggest blunders of our modern society is the belief that through our rationalizations and our sciences we have things all figured out. This is pure arrogance! When I come across something that challenges my paradigm, I have found that the best way to approach it is to give it the benefit of the doubt; to put it into practice and see if it works in my life. If it works, I'll continue to use it; if it doesn't, I won't.

Getting back to the medicines, when we approach the plant people with humility and an open heart and mind, things start to happen. They communicate with us and teach us. When that first started happening to me I was sceptical but open to the possibility. What I found out pretty quick was that when I listened, things worked out; when I didn't, things screwed up. It didn't take long for me to learn to stop fighting it and just accept it. The only issue for me is not the existence of or accuracy of these communications, it is whether or not I have the clarity to receive them. I have learned that when things aren't clear it's because I'm not clear. I will do whatever is necessary to become clear or leave it and come back to it when I am.

Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) is one of the first medicines that "called" me.

I don't work with herbs because they are readily available or because of curiosity. I only work with the medicines that call me. In working with them, it is important that I approach them with the right attitude. It is also a universal understanding within indigenous healing traditions that energy always moves in a circle. That means that when we take something it is important that we always give something back. On one level that includes the humility, respect and love that I approach the medicines with. I also pick up any garbage that I find when I'm out on the landscape, whether I'm harvesting or not. However, there is also an understanding that it is best to give something back that is more tangible; something for which we've made some sacrifices to grow it or working to earn money to purchase it. In North America the most common gift that we offer is tobacco. Cornmeal is also used, especially in the southwest. In many traditions it is said that the main reason tobacco is used is because the spirit of tobacco offered itself to be used for this purpose. It is part of it's medicine. Tobacco is used to carry the prayers of those who smoke it in a ceremonial way using a sacred pipe. Many of the peoples of Mexico, Central and South America traditionally use it in the form of cigars. Tobacco is also used for healing, connecting with the world around us, and as a form of energy exchange, as an offering or gift whenever we receive something. Tobacco is a very powerful medicine. There are healers for whom it is the only medicine that they use. One of the consequences of using powerful medicines is that they make great demands on those who use them and there are often significant repercussions when these medicines are used in an inappropriate way. In our society we don't need to look very far to see the negative consequences of the misuse of tobacco.

Wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica).

Having said all of this, there is something that I've mentioned in previous posts and I need to reiterate here. I want to be clear that I'm not saying that the way I practice herbalism is the only way to practice herbalism. There are many different traditions of herbalism and many great herbalists working within each of them. This way of practicing and living herbalism is the essence of the tradition that I come from. It is what works for me. That being said, it is my experience that the deeper our relationship with the medicines that we use, the more profound the results that we will witness in our lives and in our healing work. Deepening our relationship with the medicines is something that will benefit any herbalist regardless of what herbs or system of herbalism that they use. The same applies to anyone who is working with herbs on a personal level. It also helps us on our own path of healing and the greater the depth of healing that we experience in our own life, the better we are able to be vehicles for the medicine on behalf of others. This way of relating to medicines is common to all of the ancient healing traditions. In my experience, it is something that has largely been lost in Western herbalism, but is making a resurgence. I'm putting this out there to demonstrate how it works for me. Hopefully it will help other people on their own path. This theme will definitely come up from time to time in my posts. However, for people who want some guidance on how to experience more of this in their lives, you might want to check out The Spirit of Herbs workshops on my website. There are other people offering these kinds of teachings as well.

3. Ethical wild harvesting.

The issues that I discussed in point #2 above are very personal. This is not something that I talk about much with my clients or even other herbalists unless they express an interest in it. Similarly, although I'm quite open about where I'm coming from with my students and this stuff comes up periodically in the courses that I teach, I present it as a way of looking at things (as opposed to the way of looking at things). I also introduce it in greater depth and help my students to experience doing herbalism in a this way in The Spirit of Herbs workshops, but ultimately it is up to each student to decide to what degree they want to integrate it into the way they practice herbalism (if at all) once they begin to practice on their own. However, the issue of ethical wild harvesting is something that I stress repeatedly. I have a handout that outlines guidelines for ethical wild harvesting that the Traditional Herbalist students probably receive a half dozen times in various classes over the course of their program. I am going to provide those guidelines here (see below). For those who are interested, I am also making this handout available as a PDF file on the Herbal Resources page of our website.

Link to PDF file.

Guidelines for Ethical Wild Harvesting

  • Only wild harvest a species of herb that is common in the region that you are harvesting, and is common in general (i.e. don’t pick an herb that is common in a specific region if there are only a few regions where it is common).
  • Only wild harvest a species of herb that is plentiful in the immediate area that you are harvesting it.
  • Only wild harvest individual herbs that are healthy and from a strong, healthy, local population.
  • Never wild harvest more than 10% of the plants of a particular species in any specific area if you are harvesting roots or rhizomes, or from 20% of the population of the species if harvesting the aerial parts, as long as in the latter case you are harvesting them early enough for them to produce more flowers and reproduce.
  • Never wild harvest any species of herb from any specific area if there is evidence that someone else has been harvesting the same species in the same area.
  • Whenever possible, always wild harvest individual herbs at a time and in a way that allows the particular plants that you are harvesting to reproduce (i.e. early enough in the season that they can produce more flowers and there is time for their seeds to mature if you are harvesting the aerial parts, and late enough in the season that they have finished producing their seeds if harvesting roots or rhizomes).
  • Always locate at least three different areas from which you can obtain each species of herb that you need to wild harvest in accordance with the above guidelines so that you never wild harvest any particular species from any specific area more than once every three years.
  • Never harvest any more than you need. 100-250 ml (4-8 ounces) is enough per year for personal use. You might possibly need 500 ml (16 ounces) of a very few herbs that you use a lot. Double these amounts if you are harvesting for a family rather than a single individual.
  • Herbs should not be wild harvested in urban areas. They should be harvested in healthy wilderness areas of a significant size that are free of any obvious sources of pollution. Don’t harvest herbs near major roads or near areas of intense agricultural activity. The herbs should be growing at least 50 m from any minor roads (100 m if they are dirt or gravel roads) and 200 m from any small scale farming unless it is an organic farm. If a species of herb that you are harvesting is growing in or along the edge of water, there should not be any major sources of urban, industrial or agricultural pollution upstream or adjacent to any body of water where the herbs are being harvested.

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.

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.