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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Radical Weed Herbalism

No… not that kind of weed.  This kind of weed:
Motherwort found in my backyard.
As an aspiring radical herbalist, I am a big fan of localization of herbal knowledge.  What this means is that whenever possible I think it’s best to learn and use herbs that are available locally… not just imports available at a local health food store, but plants that you are able to either find or cultivate yourself in your own bioregion.  In theory, you should be able to go out to your garden or to a natural space like a park and create a number of your own basic medicines without any exchange of capital at all, excepting maybe a solvent or carrier if you don’t have the skills necessary to make your own.

I started writing this as a love letter to local herbal medicine, about how you should go out and do this, you should definitely do this, it’s such great praxis.  And then I remembered American ginseng.  And I decided to both tone down the excitement a bit and clarify what kinds of medicinal herbs I am talking about, because although in a perfect world we would be able to go out and harvest the bounty of nature unfettered, we are not living in a perfect world.

Let me first talk about the ginseng.  Ginseng is a plant that grows wild around here, and is widely renowned as a highly medicinal plant.  Because it is in such high demand, you can sell this stuff for gobs of cash.  Because you can sell it for gobs of cash, a lot of people go out to pick it.  In Wisconsin (and probably elsewhere) you need to purchase a fairly inexpensive license to pick it as an individual, and a more-expensive license in order to purchase it from harvesters.  It’s hard to find a place to harvest it because it’s not legal to pick it on public land; you basically need to own property or have permission from somebody to take a highly lucrative item from their property.  This, of course, hasn’t stopped overharvesting, and especially poaching.  People are constantly trespassing, clearing out entire populations of plants, taking plants that are very young, taking plants that don’t have fruit (this is illegal; it needs to have berries and you need to replant them), and clearing out cultivated ginseng, as people often plant this herb in ways that don’t look like they are being cultivated.  These are by and large not used for local medicine, but to sell to companies that put them in supplements and sports drinks.  This is exacerbated by shows like Filthy Riches, which show people making a lot of money doing this without a nuanced perspective of the ecological harm done by an oversaturation of harvesters.

I decided against getting a ginseng license for this reason.  Even if I did find property to hunt for it on and only used it for myself, I would be further harming a very threatened plant.

Recently I learned about a plant called ghost pipe that is being seriously over-harvested as well.  People take whole stands of this stuff, often uprooting it (a dick move that kills the plant) to make tinctures to use and sell.  When called about it people babble about how spiritual they are and how they asked permission of the plant (something I'll need to address at a later time).

A lot of herbalists use the term “plant ally” to refer to plants they work with.  As a social justice activist, when I think of an “ally” I think of a fair-weather friend who ultimately only works with an oppressed group when it benefits them, and this is the perfect description of how so many people view plant medicines.  I use the term “plant comrade” instead; no, I’m not trying to make that “a thing,” and yes, it’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek (and kind of backwards), but it’s also a good way to describe my philosophy on working with plants and fungi in this way.  An ally relationship is very often one-sided, and that’s exactly how it looks when somebody treats medicinal plants as these selfless organisms that exist only to create medicine for us, as if all making of medicine from them is by nature honoring that plant.  A beneficial relationship by contrast is one in which your use of that plant helps the plant or avoids wasting it or poisoning the planet… which I admittedly call camaraderie mostly because it’s super pinko communist and that just happens to be my aesthetic.

That’s where ditch weeds come in.  These plants are the biggest victims of plant blindness--people see them and just see generic bushes of weeds without value-- most people believe them to be nuisances, and most importantly, they’re abundant.  Some of these plants may very well have a market, but their local nature is kept hidden for the benefit of people selling them.  Recently I found motherwort in my backyard, a plant that it didn’t even occur to me lived around here and that has probably succumbed to the weedwackers of many a suburbanite.  It is invasive.  It is a plant that shouldn’t be here, that through no fault of its own is ecocidal in this environment.  So instead of pretending it’s a big secret thing that should be purchased in tincture form at an alternative health store, I have been making it into medicine myself, honoring the plant and its healing properties without harming its species.

There are many plants that almost nobody harvests--or not enough people harvest to make an impact--that can be made into local medicinal preparations.  Biking down a heavily-used trail I will not find any ginseng, but I could find buckets of dandelion, chicory, mullein, yellow dock, plantain, red clover, purslane, burdock, yellow wood sorrel, wild carrot, pineapple weed, motherwort, lamb’s quarters, rocket, ground ivy, mustard, and plenty more I’m forgetting.  There are a lot of trees that are intentionally planted in high enough numbers that collection is not a problem, such as ginkgo in certain parks, pine, maple, willow, elderberry, mulberry,  and several species of nuts.  And that’s not even mentioning plants that are easy to maintain once they get going, like raspberry (of which the leaves are used as an herbal), grape, garlic, chives, most types of mint (preferably in pots as it likes to escape), echinacea, and rose.  These local plant comrades can help with a wide variety of ailments and assist in nutrition without needing to participate at all in the exchange of capital and without paying somebody to destroy entire populations of rare plants.

So why don’t we do that?  Because so much popular herbalism is vapid and consumeristic.  We’re led to believe that exotic or rare plants are better for us or contain some special property that we can’t find anywhere else so that we’ll purchase them for a high price when there are local alternatives widely available, or we're not told when we are spending money on plants that literally grow two feet away from us.

Does everyone have the ability to learn wild plants, harvest them, make medicines out of them, and so forth?  No.  People have disabilities, they have time constraints, they have--dare I say it--a normal lack of interest.  And there are certainly very valuable herbs that cannot be locally acquired.  Because of this I’m not saying that there is no excuse ever to purchase a medicine or sell a medicine (local herbalists need to survive under capitalism too, after all).  But I think it is best praxis to create a local natural medicine culture, one in which we first look to plant comrades which are close to us, accessible, and abundant before we start turning to the exotic and rare stuff.  Through that we can make herbal medicine free to affordable as well as kind to the planet.

Happy Trails,
-- Jackson