Preserving plant healers

Fellow gardener/garden writer Victoria Maddux recently shared a horrifying story about her and her husband, John, having been on the receiving end of a swarm of yellow jackets. She described the various treatments they’d used, including meat tenderizer and several homeopathic remedies. Recalling all this later, however, I realized that I’d failed to mention my own favorite: the plantain poultice. (For immediate relief of pain and swelling, the plantain must be quickly picked, chewed and slapped onto the area around the sting — and kept there for as long as the green glob can be held in place.)

Thinking about this simple, effective remedy inspired me to consider my own “medicine cabinet,” containing such riches as a jewelweed spray (to help relieve poison-ivy rashes), a wellness formula (to boost the immune system), and a shelf full of herbal teas (for alleviating indigestion, stress and sleepless nights). How readily we reach for and use plants to treat and heal aches and pains without really understanding how all this came to be. Who are all these plants? And how does our taking advantage of their healing properties affect them?

The medicinal use of plants has a long and rich history in the Southern Appalachians, due in part to the remarkable diversity of local plant life (more than 2,300 species of vascular plants inhabit various woodland and meadow niches). Although Native Americans used such plants on a daily basis, as white settlers moved into the area in the late 1700s, edible and medicinal plants became trade goods. More recently, during the Depression, “wild crafting” (collecting marketable wild plants) helped many mountain families survive.

In time, however, some species were so overcollected that they became rare and were given legal protection, so they won’t be lost forever. These pressures continue today as more and more of us look to nature to supply remedies and food supplements. And even those of us who don’t are still relying on plants to help us heal: More than 25 percent of prescription medicines contain plant extracts. Meanwhile, researchers continue to isolate valuable new medicines from plants, and every time someone holds a ramp festival or a new article comes out announcing the health merits of a particular plant-derived substance, the demand for that plant increases.

All of this has sparked growing concern about supply and demand in relation to wild plants. Strengthening regulations and certification requirements to limit harvesting of wild populations can help. But development and large-scale production of these crops will be critical to ensuring the continued existence and adequate supplies of medicinal plants. Thankfully, there has already been a considerable amount of effort — on the part of state agencies as well as nonprofit and private business groups — to research ways to grow crops such as ginseng, goldenseal and ramps on a commercial basis and to relay this information to small farmers in the region, to help them transition toward more financially and environmentally sustainable crops.

At N.C. State University, for example, the North Carolina Specialty Crops Program helps identify and develop new agricultural commodities and value-added products for Tar Heel farmers. Some of the work focuses on developing sustainable, organic crop-production systems for such medicinal herbs as Saint Johnswort, echinacea and valerian; nontimber forest products such as black cohosh, ginseng and ramps; and culinary herbs such as basil and elephant garlic. The nonprofit Yellow Creek Botanical Institute in Graham County, N.C., focuses on developing native Southern Appalachian plants as new crops that can help foster sustainable economic development in the region. Gaia Herbs, Red Moon Herbs and a multitude of other groups are doing similar work by supporting and educating local growers and offering both wild-crafted and commercially produced organic, herbal medicines made from high-quality, fresh and locally grown materials whenever possible.

These groups and others have joined forces to establish the North Carolina Natural Products Association, which is holding its first Conference Oct. 27-28 at the N.C. Arboretum. “Planting North Carolina’s Medicinal Herb Economy” will offer hands-on information and resources for growers, buyers, wild harvesters and folks who produce plant-based food products. (For more information, contact Jackie Greenfield at (828) 684-3562; e-mail: jackie_greenfield@ncsu.edu). The comprehensive conference will cover everything from permits and regulations to conservation and wild-harvesting ethics to commercial production and marketing.

Much of this information is aimed primarily at commercial growers. But home gardeners may be interested to know that many of these same plants can be grown or may even already be growing in your lawn, garden or nearby woods. “Woodland botanicals” such as black cohosh and ginseng will grow in conditions similar to other woodland plants such as May apple, bloodroot and trillium — namely, rich forests with a northern or eastern exposure; a 75-percent shade canopy from deciduous or mixed deciduous and pine forests; and moist, well-drained soils containing a high level of organic material. Valerian, Saint Johnswort and echinacea, on the other hand, are more sun-loving, will tolerate a heavier clay soil, and in general belong to a tougher class of plants. And although gardeners often send plantain, burdock and chickweed — local weeds commonly found in both garden beds and lawns — straight to the compost pile, it’s important to recognize that these lesser-known beauties are just as effective medicinally as their woodland and sun-loving relatives that have achieved more celebrity status.

Even if you use only purchased herbal remedies, knowing and understanding the big picture and its impact at the local level helps you become a more informed and responsible consumer. And if you’re a gardener who grows these plants both for their beauty and for occasional personal use, here are a few additional points to consider:

* When buying plants, always ask about the source and whether the plants are wild-collected or nursery-propagated. Are these species endangered or threatened in the wild?

* Do what you can to provide the best growing environment to help these plants thrive.

* Make sure your plants are properly identified and that the area around them is clean and free of exhaust fumes and pesticide residues.

* And finally, if you plan to return for future harvests, be sure to leave enough of a healthy plant population so it will reproduce and multiply.

Besides enabling us to do our part to care for and protect our native plant populations, these steps also help ensure that there will be healthful, natural remedies for bee stings and other common ailments for many generations to come.

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