by Susan E. Stanton, BFC Herbal Educator
What does an herbalist do when she or he discovers that a well known medicinal plant has grown scarce in the wild due to overharvesting? Panic, stop using it, don’t tell anyone about it… Some of us have had just such a knee-jerk reaction at one time or another, but it is not always necessary to shun a favorite medicinal herb just because it is challenged by overharvesting, habitat loss, or other causes.
Is the plant at risk? Thanks to the work of Vermont resident Rosemary Gladstar and others who created the organization United Plant Savers, anyone can access information on native North American species that are at risk of extinction in the wild. See the “At-Risk List” and learn about cultivation, conservation, and education by going to www.unitedplantsavers.org.
When possible use cultivated rather than wildcrafted herbs. If you wish to purchase at-risk plants such as goldenseal, black cohosh, or American ginseng in capsule or tincture form, read the labels first. The back of a label will usually tell you whether herbs were wildcrafted, cultivated, or organically cultivated. Companies like Oregon’s Wild Harvest, Gaia, Herb Pharm, and Vitality Works* grow many herbs on their own organic farms. Gaia Herbs goes a step further with a tracking number on each package so you can go online and find out the origin of the particular plants that were used in the product you are holding. It will also show you photos and medicinal information about each species used. Fun!
Use herbs grown on local farms. Asking where the herbs come from is progress toward sustainable purchasing. Buying local organic herbs like nettles, peppermint, or ashwagandha grown in Vermont on Zack Woods Herb Farm supports a future of quality natural medicine in our community.
Have intimate relationships with plants. Even as I gratefully watch Co-op shoppers paying a little more for these locally grown remedies (in the bulk medicinal herb section of the Wellness department), I can’t help but think there is something more to the sustainability picture. Consider aspects of herbal medicine that are too big to fit through the checkout counter. I’m referring to your relationship with medicinal plants. One way to develop this relationship is to learn how to use herbs. Learn how to use botanical medicines by taking a class this summer with one of southern Vermont’s many herbalists. Here are some of the summer classes I will be teaching at the Brattleboro Food Co-op:
Celebrating the Mint Family
Wednesday July17, 6:00-7:30 pm
Making Herb-Infused Oils
Wednesday June 19, 6:00-8:00 pm
Making Herbal Salves and Lip Balm
Wednesday July 24. 6:00-8:00 pm
Honor Your Elder (bush)
Wednesday August 14, 6:00-7:30 pm
Ask an Herbalist: Herbs for Healthy Joints
Thursday August 22, 6:30-8:00 pm
Ask an Herbalist is part of an ongoing series of panel discussions featuring local herbalists and naturopaths.
As we all work to create a culture of sustainable herbal medicine, let’s get to know the plants well. Find out what each species needs to thrive and reproduce, and how it affects us personally. May your favorite plants, your love of them, and the wisdom to know and grow them endure for generations.
*Vitality Works makes the BFC brand herbs
Grow your own medicinal plants.
Another way to take responsibility for your own health is to grow the medicinal plants you want to use. Below is a list of exquisite medicinal plants that will be available at BFC on June 14 from 11am-1pm when Melanie and Jeff Carpenter of Zack Woods Herb Farm visit the store. Hear what the farmers themselves have to say about the growth habits and individual needs of these and other species!
Arnica (Arnica montana) At risk in the wild. Make an infused oil (see classes above) from the dried, yellow, daisy-like flowers and use externally on unbroken skin for sore muscles or joints. Potentially toxic. Consult with a professional herbal health practitioner before using internally.
Black cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) At risk in the wild. Beautiful perennial used by women of all ages to help promote hormone balance. Many rely on it for helping with menopausal hot flashes. Large, impressive white floral display.
Goldenseal (Hydrastis Canadensis) At risk in the wild. Excellent antimicrobial used for stubborn infections. Effective bitter stimulates digestive processes, including liver and gall bladder function.
Pleurisy Root (Asclepias tuberosa) Potentially at risk in the wild. Brilliant blooms brighten the perennial bed and keep a steady stream of pollinators (honeybees, butterflies) happily feasting on your flowers. Potential toxicity. Use low dose and consult with herbal health practitioner. Roots traditionally used for pneumonia, pleurisy, other respiratory issues.
American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia) At risk in the wild. (CITES international trade restrictions) Highly prized adaptogen helps build energy, stamina, immunity, hormone balance, adrenal support, cognitive function, and libido.
Tulsi or Holy/Sacred Basil (Ocimum sanctum) Tea is calming, delicious, and easy to grow. Also relieves stress-related digestive complaints. The living plant can be a supportive companion while you pray or meditate in the garden.
Angelica (Angelica sp.) Impressive biennial growing 4-9 feet tall in rich, wet soil (during second year). Leaves and roots useful for digestive and respiratory issues. Seeds and stems traditionally used in confections.