Bio-Regional Herbalism, Wildcrafting and Climate Change.
Staying present and aware. What does that have to do with the title of this blog!? Within the last 5 decades I have seen an increased awareness of the need to eat whole foods and heal with herbs, within the last 20 years I have seen herbalists and herb schools flourish and within the last few months I have seen bio-regional herbalism, wildcrafting and climate change become mainstream. Looking to tomorrow, I have now begun to wonder how those last 3 categories are related. What I do know and don't have to wonder about is that those 3 categories aren't going away. Care should be taken to see how they effect each other if we are to be responsible herbalists, teaches, users of herbal medicine, consumers and concerned inhabitants of mother earth.
The conversation about how teaching wildcrafting and foraging of plants and food has turned into horror stories of individuals over-harvesting, completely removing stands of herbs, commercializing native plants and price gouging, has just begun. It is an important one and it is one that we have NOW, with an open heart, open mind and with reverence for mother earth. It would seem that being into herbs would go hand in hand with honoring the earth. One promotes the other, no? That is where being present and aware comes in to play a big part in the story. Fifty years ago, when the book Back to Eden was discovered and Silent Spring was written, the young hippies of the 60's thought this is it, this is the answer, At least I did. Fast forward to 2017 with the need to accelerate our attention to how we effect the earth even if it is in area of herbalism,
The herbal industry started becoming too big to manage roughly 15 to 20 years ago. The end result is organic is not always available, products are tainted with chemicals or contain little to no herbs at all, standardized vs whole was and still is the debate, FDA regulations are looming over our heads, and sustainability is possibly not even a concern. Bring it to the present and we see a completely different scenario developing. Lots of herbalist, farmers and holistically oriented folks have pursued ways to deal with this and we now see an increase in organic farming, herb farmers, wildcrafters and foragers. But, my friends, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
First, let's be grateful to all those amazing teachers, foragers and farmers. My concern is not about them but of the base that they market to which is now proving to be a threat. That, along with climate change could lead to some disappointing results. I have been reading and hearing that certain stands of herbs, when discovered or shown to an opportunist, ends in complete decimation of that stand. I have heard more than one story to this effect and am now seeing an uptick in the amount of conversations and the plea for awareness of this happening and the potential for it to get worse. The conversation is important and the possibility of total agreement on the subject remote but without discussion and awareness of the present day situation of over-harvesting and unethical decimation of herbs we will find ourselves back 50 years when goldenseal was practically harvested off the planet. Thanks to Rosemary Gladstar and United Plant Savers we now cultivate and promote the sale of organic goldenseal thus ensuring its survival.
Bio-regional herbalism is becoming so popular that almost weekly I see a new course offered or a new reference made to this concept. It is a beautiful concept, a necessary concept and a concept that can enable balance with our immediate surroundings. Bio-regional herbalim is defined as "the process of creating relationships with the plants around you". For years I foraged in the mountains outside of Yuma, Arizona. I would take a branch or two of chaparral while asking the plant if I could. I used the indigenous method of collecting which is defined as take from every 3rd plant (this may vary in some circles). I also practice taking only 10% and take only what I am going to use. As a small herb shop owner with an inventory of over 350 herbs, I didn't need to take much and yet, the desert plants are so powerful that it never occurred to me to take too much. The area surrounding Yuma, Arizona is low, hot desert and herbs are scarce but powerful. If necessary ones whole medicine chest could come from this area. But as a shop owner I needed to buy herbs from suppliers.
If we remain in the present and survey the various bio-regions throughout the U.S., we see there are many and they are diverse. I am going to use elder as an example. Tanque Verde Wash in Tucson, Arizona has about 2 or 3 Elder trees which produce a very minimal amount of berries and flowers due to the dry conditions while Elder tress in the St.Louis, Missouri area are profuse and produce 100's of pounds of berries and flowers. If we are to harvest in Tucson in the same fashion as we are to harvest in St. Louis the Tucson Elders would probably be wiped out in one or two years while the St. Louis Elders will thrive, flourish and continue to produce possibly forever. When discussing bio-regional herbalism, foraging and wildcrafting we must see the difference in the vaarious bio-regions and the absolute need for different behavior when collecting herbs and food.
Another aspect of protecting the plant is to steward and plant seeds. If we steward herbs that are fast growing and prolific with an understanding of their growth patterns then we will be successful in our mission. If we plant or replant what we took we are successful in our mission. If we leave some things alone that we are not able to steward or plant then we are successful in our mission. If we harvest a fraction of the stand ensuring its survival then we are successful in our mission. We must not disturb the balance or destroy the habitats because this will inevitably contribute to climate change. Some may argue that certain invasives need to be controlled. The above suggested guidelines do not apply to invasives. Invasives and alternatives are something we need to seek out for medicine. Slippery Elm, such a popular herb in the past 10 years is on the brink of extinction. Chinese Elm, an invasive, is an adequate substitute. Osha, an herb becoming so popular that it is overused and definitely over-harvested. Osha has a complex growing habitat that is just now being studied and understood. It is a plant that has a very specific application and almost a dozen substitutes. Grindelia, damiana, elecampane, Angelica archangelica, thyme and sage are a few. The beauty of the substitutes is they are readily available, easy to grow and abundant.
One more thing that I feel is necessary to point out about habitat is comparing the difference between desert growing plants and moist bio-region plants. Most desert plant are already protected. Some take decades to grow and are not readily available or abundant. Over harvesting of desert herbs can lead to devastating results. The possibility of reseeding and seeing any results is not as logical as the practice of substitution, ethical wildcrafting, buying from organic farmers, taking only what one needs, not commercializing and staying spiritually connected. I do not apply these guidelines to plants we see in abundance year after year after year in places like North Carolina but we can also do damage in areas like that if we go in, plow down and commercialize an herb.
In the face of inevitable climate change which has been the result of over-consumption among other things, please try to remember, practice and teach others.......commercialization is not always our friend and the plants that suffer because of this will no longer be of service to us. Please reseed the plants, connect with and continue the conversation. A ripple in the ocean can be felt around the world. Green blessings to all.