In today’s global society, herbalists have access to rare and unique medicinal herbs from across the globe; from Asian ginseng from the orient, Uña de Gato and Pau d’arco from the South American rainforests to our own continents rare treasures like goldenseal and oshá. Many of these herbs have become popular medicines in the herbal trade, usually for good reasons. They are powerful plant medicines that grow in extreme environments, or are particularly rare where they do grow.
As an herbalist I have come to appreciate some of these herbs in my practice and daily use. They certainly have their place in healing, for particular people or situations. But I consider myself, as an herbalist, a caretaker and steward of the plant world, and I cannot turn away from the grim facts that the use of these herbs has presented to me. Even within our own country, use of some herbal medicines have led to over harvesting and threatened existence of wild native species like goldenseal, Echinacea, lady’s slipper, and oshá root. In far away lands, the same is true. In order to provide a hungry herbal market with large quantities of exotic species, wildcrafters will irresponsibly harvest a plant until it is gone, or they are sold as by products of environmental destruction.
Further detrimental to our own well being is the handling and storage of these exotic species overseas, which are often sprayed with fumigants, pesticides or left sitting for who knows how long in an unsanitary warehouse. What is an herbalist to do?
It is of utmost importance to search out organically cultivated or very ethically wildcrafted products. You must be able to get answers to questions from the seller or harvester such as; WHEN was it harvested, HOW was it handled, WHERE did it come from, WHO harvested or produced it? But getting these assurances of quality and ethics comes with a price tag, and exotic and rare species can become quite expensive. For example, organically cultivated goldenseal, one of North Americas most widely used herbs in commerce, runs between $90-$150 a pound!
Herbalists must learn to use such herbs wisely, to preserve them for future generations. But there is another good option for herbalists. I call this the practice of healing locally. In my experience as an herbalist in the desert, I’ve continually run up against the problem of availability of common western medicinal herbs. I just can’t grow some of my commonly used medicinal plants, or can’t responsibly wildcraft them nearby. I can trade or purchase from growers or herbalists in other parts of the country, to a certain extent. But I have learned to embrace the healing power of the local plants around me. Some of our local desert plants are miraculous and powerful healers, and are often sought out by herbalists in other parts of the country. Chaparral (larrea tridentata) is just one of our extremely widespread healing plants, and serves as a wonderful alterative and antimicrobial/antifungal. In fact, it is occasionally being used as a substitute for goldenseal in formulas for topical infections. Algerita (mahonia trifoliata), a local species of Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.), which has representatives across the continent, is an excellent remedy used identically to Oregon grape root, and often times substituted for goldenseal in alterative or digestive formulas. We have our own local representative of the Arcostaphylos genus, Manzanita (arcostaphylos pungens). It is used just as uva-ursi of herbal commerce is in treating urinary tract infections and inflammations. I can get the desired results by using our local plants, just as effectively as using the more common medicinal species of the herb trade.
It is also vitally important to realize the deep connection plants and people have with the land and environment they live in. I deeply believe that our local plants can offer us healing in a way that imports can not. Living in the desert, we absorb the same energies and experiences as the plants that dwell here. They grow and use the qualities of the desert in their lifecycle. By using these plants as medicine, we can tap into the appropriate energies required for healing ourselves in our desert environment. For example, one of the Sonoran desert’s diseases, Valley Fever, a fungal infection usually centered in the lungs, which comes from the breathing in dust or dirt with the fungus, can be treated with a local plant, Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis). Desert Willow is an excellent antifungal plant, and I find it more than just convenient that a remedy to a local illness grows right here where we need it! Our local ragweed species, Canyon Bursage (Ambrosia ambrosoides) is a HUGE pollen producer, and causes a lot of people allergy problems each spring, but conveniently the leaves and root of the very same plant possess anti-histamine properties and offer relief from seasonal allergies.
It is still important to wildcraft our local species very responsibly. Just because they live nearby, doesn’t make them immune to over harvesting. Granted, it isn’t likely that chaparral will ever get close to extinction, but Oshá root (Liguisticum porteri) is an extremely popular and very useful medicine, but rather rare in the wild. Collecting it haphazardly will surely result in threatened extinction. Responsible wild crafters will scatter seed, will never take from areas where the plant is few and far between, and will use it wisely in practice.
I live in a unique environment in the Sonoran Desert, and herbalists of temperate North America may have no problems growing some of our medicinal allies of the plant world, and some are even doing the vital work of cultivating our threatened native species like goldenseal, Echinacea and black cohosh. For more information on people growing and protecting at risk medicinal plants, you can visit United Plant Savers, http://unitedplantsavers.org/.
Finally, I feel it is important, when using herbs, to seek out the highest quality and ethics in your provider. I know it is easy and very tempting to buy a bottle of capsules of Echinacea/Goldenseal from the market shelves, but I can almost guarantee that the quality will be suspect; it may be unethically wild crafted by grossly underpaid or overpaid workers, and supports a sometimes irresponsible commercial herb corporation. They cannot educate the buyer of the qualities and risks of the herb in the bottle, and may not be able to guarantee what is in that bottle! The recent scare of the use of Ephedra in weight loss supplements is a good example of irresponsible herb commerce. Ephedra was never meant to be used to aid weight loss, and the companies producing such supplements were not able to appropriately warn or educate the users as to the effects of Ephedra used in such quantities over long periods of time. Ephedra is an incredibly valuable herb for people who suffer from frightening asthma attacks, but it MUST be used with respect and with the appropriate knowledge.
Community herbalists are a vital part of herbal healing. They often provide high quality herbal products that are ethically produced and gathered, and are always more than willing to educate you on the products you may use, and will help guide you in long term healing by monitoring your reactions to herbs and practices. Herbal medicines are extremely valuable and powerful, but like anything, must be used with respect, for the plants themselves, their effects on our bodies and their own well being. One of wonderful aspects of healing with plants is that it is easily accessible, even by those who can’t necessarily afford expensive treatments. Plants can collected or grown by anyone, and I would hope that anyone who wants to help themselves with the plants will feel empowered to make their own medicine, with knowledge, safety and respect and love for the plants that offer their healing gifts to us so willingly.
Previously published at www.desertmedicinewoman.com, Winter 2005 Newsletter