Trust in the Power of Nature
Although it may seem as though the U.S. is undergoing a renaissance in the field of herbal medicine, as executive director of United Plant Savers, Susan Leopold, puts it, “it’s really our lineage.” Even 50% of pharmaceutical drugs use either isolated plant compounds or copies of their genetic material.
The style of herbalism that evolved in Appalachia and the surrounding regions is a result of Native American, African and European remedies that have merged over centuries. In fact it is the very remoteness of these communities that ensured the survival of herbal traditions.
As medical doctors became more prevalent in the early 20th century, herbalism often only hung on in places where hospitals were few and far between.
According to a pharmacologist writing forScience magazine in 1941, “Present-day medical scientists only too frequently are apt to look askance at those who would investigate the therapeutic properties of the vegetable kingdom.” Today, however, more and more hospitals are seeking to integrate alternative techniques.
One of the themes that continued to reemerge throughout the project was the concept that taking herbs is really about more than just taking the appropriate medicine for a particular ailment. “I think the whole movement of herbalism is a deep reflection of of our need to have more spirituality and more reverence for nature in general…sort of a seeking of that connectivity that we’ve lost. There’s something beyond this plant constituent that can heal a respiratory infection or this concept of ‘I have a cold so I’m going to take echinacea.’ It’s beyond that. It’s a healing connectivity that happens when you connect with plants,” says Susan Leopold.
Growing your own plants, or wildcrafting those that are in abundance, is one way to experience herbs as something more than just a supplement bought off the shelf.
In the words of Moona Cancino, an apprentice with herbalist Teresa Boardwine, “…Anybody who says they’ve mastered herbs, well, you better seriously question them, because there is so much to learn, and it is such a cultivation of a relationship. I would never say that I think I know another human being inside and out, so how could you say that about a plant? Much less all the plant kingdom?”
Unfortunately, as herbs become popular again, more and more are being overharvested from wild populations in order to keep up with demand. American ginseng, for example, can sell for up to $1000 a pound, encouraging poachers to exceed legal limits that have been put in place to protect the longevity of the species. The fines for those caught are a mere fraction of the amount of money poachers make selling the roots, and so they continue to decimate the population.
Groups like United Plant Savers work to combat this by encouraging “conservation through cultivation.” Anyone who wishes to is welcome to use some of their land to grow herbs from UPS’ endangered list, thereby incorporating themselves into their international botanical sanctuary network.
Teresa Boardwine, an herbalist and creator of Green Comfort School of Herbal Medicine, uses her land to grow herbs and is part of the sanctuary network. “It’s all about sustainability. We are, as a population, seeking a connection to nature. We’re seeking a way to walk on this planet without adding to the destruction while utilizing what it has to offer.”