Focusing on bioregions can enrich the practice of herbalism and protect its potential
Imagine taking a stroll through your neighborhood or a nearby forest and, in twenty or thirty minutes, finding most of the medicinal plants necessary to sustain and enhance your health.
To trained herbalists the world over, such abundance is anything but astonishing. In fact, they tell of nearly complete natural pharmacies existing in most areas of human habitation. These riches go unnoticed by most modern, urban users of herbs.
But such users do know that they can buy Ayurvedic remedies, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western European herbal blends, ultramodern standardized products, and a host of other products from around the world. Modern herb consumers are able to draw from a deep well of traditions and cultures. There’s a dark side to this globalism, however; while it offers unique opportunities, it also comes with unique challenges.
Products from the other side of the planet crowd store shelves, while healing herbs growing wild just a few miles away may face overharvesting or even extinction. Rare ginsengs from the Far East can now be taken in convenient capsules, thanks to scientific advances. But this very convenience may mean that a cash register forges the only link between people and their medicine. In such transactions, herbal healers with deep roots in their communities worry that something essential is being lost.
“Plants have provided our basic needs for millennia,” points out Frank Cook, an herbalist based in Asheville, North Carolina. “It has only been relatively recently that we have replaced plants with synthetic products made in laboratories.”
Rosemary Gladstar, based in Vermont, has been a practicing herbalist and herbal author for twenty-five years. She co-founded United Plant Savers, a nonprofit botanical conservation group, to help research, cultivate, and preserve wild herb populations. Gladstar says that although the increasing popularity of herbs has made them more accessible to more people, it also has separated them from their medicine. Ironically, one of the key reasons she became involved in herbalism was to help repair that link.
“That’s partly how these medicines work; it’s the connection between you and your environment,” Gladstar explains.
Many herbalists believe that some modern ailments are caused by the stress of disassociation from nature and that focusing on the beauty and balance of the environment at hand is inherently healing.
“We’re going in the opposite direction in the herbal movement these days,” Gladstar says. “In the process, we’re re-creating the same problem we’ve had for the last 100 years.
“The best solution would be for people to grow their own medicine,” she adds. “If that’s not possible, I recommend that people get herbs from the geographically closest local source possible. When we look at herbalism and how it evolved, it maintains its integrity best when it’s on a more regional level.”
If a person learns about just ten herbs from their region, they can fill 90 percent of their medicine kit from those.
—Feather Jones, director, Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Studies.
A bioregion is a geographic unit in which climate, soil, elevation, and rainfall remain consistent enough for certain species and groups of species to sustainably coexist. The Sonoran desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, with its signature saguaro cactus, is one such bioregion. The Florida Everglades is another.
One of the fundamental premises of bioregional herbalism is that a nearly complete natural pharmacy exists or can be cultivated in each different bioregion. This is true of even some of the more climactically challenged regions, such as the Arctic tundra or cold and windy high altitudes. For example, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico above 9,000 feet, indigenous healing herbs include osha, Oregon grape root, uva ursi, arnica, wild rose, raspberry, and many others. Out of necessity, traditional peoples such as the Tewa and Hopi used these mountain herbs to cure common ailments such as bruises, colds, and infections.
“If a person is using plant medicine from the same environment, they have more of a synergy with each other. There is more of an inherent relationship. So I believe that the herbs then become stronger medicine for the people who live nearby and relate to them,” says Lorene Wapotich, a clinical herbalist and instructor at the Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Studies in Boulder, Colorado.
Wapotich’s eyes light up when she speaks of taking students on herb walks and introducing them to an ever-unfolding relationship with herbs.
“Whenever you examine traditional herbalism, you always find a sacred relationship with the plant and the healing process,’’ says Wapotich. “If you’re only using plants that come from far away and the only relationship you have with them is buying them off the health-food store shelf, you’re not going to develop that relationship.”
Rob Hawley has co-owned and run the Taos Herb Company in Taos, New Mexico, for sixteen years. During that time, he has seen that when herbalists work with local plant resources, their impact on the community grows beyond healing the sick. “We can have an incredible sense of presence,” he says.
Hawley believes that local control results in fresher herbs and better processing procedures.
“The quality of an extract is almost always higher when we can control the process of the plant from beginning to end. With local plants, we are able to do that and subsequently create the freshest and most vital tinctures,” he says. Wapotich agrees. “Regional herbalists have better quality control from batch to batch,” she explains.
Responsible local herbalists also use supplies in amounts that conserve and sustain the local plant population. These experts know that different plants require different harvesting techniques. They can tell when a group of plants in one area is stressed or aging and may not return for a second season if harvested. When local knowledge is paired with sustainable harvesting practices, plant populations are best protected for future generations.
Such conservation practices have a ripple effect beyond the local bioregion as well. By substituting locally harvested herbs for wild or endangered ones from far away, herbalists can support conservation efforts in other bioregions.
“There is always a local analogue for something that is exotic, even if it takes two or three plants to do what that one does,” says Feather Jones, clinical herbalist and director of the Rocky Mountain School of Botanical Studies. Jones recommends that people interested in herbs learn first about the plants that grow happily in their backyard. “If a person learns about just ten herbs from their region, they can fill 90 percent of their medicine kit from those,” she says.
Ethical wildcrafting refers to the delicate process of harvesting wild plants while simultaneously ensuring the future propagation of the species—a simple concept but one that becomes complicated in execution. Different species of plants require different and often painstaking harvesting techniques. Ethical wildcrafters must be highly attuned to native plant populations. With demand for herbs increasing, unskilled or less-than-conscientious harvesters are sometimes the only ones available to fill it.
“As sales of herbal products explode, pressure on wild populations of herbs can increase dramatically,” says Rob McCaleb, president of the Herb Research Foundation in Boulder. Ginseng and goldenseal have been threatened in the wild for years, as most herbalists are well aware.
“But even those herbs which are far from any risk of extinction have become depleted in particular areas,” McCaleb says. Such depletion makes it difficult for local healers to use locally harvested herbs in their practices.
Bioregional herbalists have witnessed the escalation of these problems. Hawley believes that improper harvesting is as much of a menace as overharvesting.
“Compared to the larger companies, I work with a relatively small amount of herbs,” Hawley says. “When I see how often people try to sell me improperly harvested or overharvested plants, I wonder how the companies that work with huge quantities of plants can pay the kind of personal attention to ethics that there needs to be.”
Mitch Coven, owner of Albuquerque-based Vitality Works, echoes Hawley’s experience. He says he is often approached by large, out-of-state companies seeking vast quantities of threatened regional herbs.
“I’m not asked if the herbs are picked correctly or how many are left, just, ‘Can it be gotten?’ ” he says.
As sales of herbal products explode, pressure on wild populations of herbs can increase dramatically.
—Rob McCaleb, president, Herb Research Foundation
Coven believes that communication between producers will help create a solution.
“It would be great if there was more networking, more making sure that we’re all not walking through each other’s backyards, ” he says.
Smaller companies can monitor and advise individual wildcrafters, but larger companies can’t—unless they work with a few main contractors and build relationships with them. Such communication fosters higher standards of stewardship, Coven says.
Organizations such as Gladstar’s United Plant Savers encourage organic herb cultivation. “Bringing threatened or endangered herbs into cultivation is one way to save their wild populations,” says McCaleb. “In many cases it is more practical to produce herbs on a farm than it is to collect them.”
Approaching herbalism bioregionally has many advantages. It supports local conservation, reconnects the sick with control of their own healing, and links local experts to broader issues within the community. And it creates a model and standards for the wise use of exotic herbs when they’re needed.
North Carolina’s Cook is cautiously optimistic.
“An eclectic medicine is developing that is just beginning to develop an identity. It represents a broad base of philosophies, models of the body and universe, medicines, and healing methods,” he says.
The way to that identity? Right out the back door.
By Jerry Schwartz
Jerry Schwartz is a freelance journalist and co-founder of the Sustainable Education and Resource Center in Taos, New Mexico. When he is not gardening, collecting herbs, or writing, he travels the world studying traditional healers and herbs.
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