Monday, October 15, 2007

Herbal Medicine and the Environment: Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day for the Environment, and I'm going to get on my soap box for a minute or two.

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

Herbal medicine has become one of the most popular segments of alternative health in the recent years. From the early 70's when people like Rosemary Gladstar and Ed Smith were rediscovering and renewing herbalism as an option in the U.S. to the current day when even Wally World sells Asian Ginseng in capsules to the mass market, herbal medicine has come a long way.

But at what cost? What does it mean that Walmart sells ginseng? Herbal medicine has become so popular and so lucrative that we have medicinal plants that are becoming threatened, endangered, and even extinct through overharvesting, unethical wildcrafting, inappropriate use, and the world wide herb market.

Sure, it might be great and wonderful to be able to buy asian ginseng in Iowa, and American ginseng in Beijing, but is that the best thing for us? for the plants? for the earth? For starters, American Ginseng is an extremely endemic plant, only growing in select microclimates of the eastern U.S. And now, it is being harvested and most of shipped to Asia. It is possible that the demand for american ginseng in asia is so great, it will be completely decimated in a matter of years. Not only will we loose a plant medicine, but think of the tons of oil and energy required to ship and store that harvest overseas.
Same story for goldenseal, except instead of being shipped across the world, it is put into every immune formula on the shelf of the health food store. Goldenseal isn't an immune herb folks, it's a mucous membrane tonic, for specifically boggy, inflammed, and hot tissues with infection. Topically, it works great for sinus infections or ringworm, but if you take it internally with your echinacea, it isn't going to stop your cold or flu. It's being incredibly mismarketed to the public, and now is overused, and overharvested.

Lucky for us there are some wonderful herb people out there growing such threatened species on Botanical reserves and herb farms, organically, and ethically. Zack Woods herb farm grows goldenseal on their farm, and many members of United Plant Savers, are hard at work preserving threatened species and threatened habitat.

United Plant Savers is also an amazing organization founded by Rosie Gladstar to educate the herbalists, herb companies and public about the status of endangered medicinal plant species, and doing all they can to protect those species from extinction.

But what does this mean for the herbalists and herb companies out there. I know a lot of herb companies who grow their own herbs, biodynamically, organically and with lots of love, and believe that if you can't grow or collect your own herbs ( which is by far the best option, which I'll talk more about below.), that buying from someone who can tell you about the herb from soil to seed, to bottle or bag is the best thing you can do. Better yet, buy from one who is local or close to your bioregion. (Oregon's Wild Harvest, Heartsong Farms, Zack Woods Herb Farm are just a few.

But there are a lot of manufacturers of herbal products who buy their herbs from wherever it is cheapest, cut and sifted, or prepowdered. They claim to do all sorts of testing and verification to ensure it is the herb claimed, and it isn't contaminated. But that herb may have been shipped all the way from India or China, and who knows how long ago. And you can bet your buttons that they haven't checked with the wildcrafters of their American Ginseng or Una de Gato to ensure that they were ethically harvested. If you see a bottle of something at Walmart, chances are it is the cheapest variety they could buy, which probably means all of the above may be true. Watch out! Buy your herbs only from someone you trust who can tell you about each herb.

But by far the best thing you can do to protect our herbal medicines and the environments they grow in is to establish your own personal relationship with the plants, their homes and the medicines you are using. That could mean growing them in your organic garden, or wildcrafting them from a place you know to be clean, and where the plant is not in any danger of being overharvested, or overrun by development. As you develop love and affection for the plants you gather, and the places they live, you will naturally assume a role of caretaker and advocate. You'll be more inclined to protect a plot of land after you've spend countless hours wandering through the grasses and hills, getting to know the plants and their gifts. Single wildcrafters, who harvest for their own use rather than selling to mass market, also cultivate a strong ethical sense of when to collect and when NOT to collect. I can find a stand of Osha here in the Rockies, and see that it is a well established stand, and collect from it. I could find another stand in the Mountains of the SW and find that it isn't so stable a stand, and pass it up. I can see when I collect plants that if I take more than one or two plants it will significantly affect the well being of that plant community. I can also take the oppurtunities to foster the health and continued life of plants and communities by spreading seeds, or replanting root crowns.

Many of the medicines one may want or need for herbal home or clinic use are available as weeds growing all over, and you may find you dont have need for such exotics as Asian Ginseng, Goldenseal, or Osha. I'm not saying you shouldn't use those herbs, but if you establish a relationship with the local weeds and medicine plants of your area, you may find you really dont need those others. That the locals with whom you live and breathe with every day will serve exactly as you need them to. You'll get to know their intricacies and idiosyncrasies, and find uses for that are never mentioned in a book.

By using the medicines you collect with your own two hands, in your own bioregion, year after year, you will grow close to and become a part of the land and environment you live in, which is so vital to the continued well being of our planet as a whole. If each of us would just come to truly live IN and WITH, not just on the land of our respective bioregions, the world environment would be much less threatened by overharvest, overdevelopment, overpollution from world wide shipments, and best of all, you will do wonders for your own spirit and heart by connecting with this earth, GAIA, mother of all creatures, plants, animals, humans, rocks and waters.


kate said...

Wonderful post Darcey, thanks!

Shamana Flora said...

Thanks Kate!!

Livia said...

You are so right, using the plants native to one's own habitat is the best way to go. Very good post.

"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~