Local Herbs,Global Healing

Focusing on bioregions can enrich the practice of herbalism and protect its potential

| September/October 2000

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.

Honoring the sources

“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.

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