Every herbalist has a unique approach to their practice. For me, its all about learning lessons directly from the land. Here’s one way to cultivate a deeper understanding of place and plant medicine…
Ecological Herbalism is a way of understanding where we live and learning about the plants around us. It is an interdisciplinary approach to herbal practice that includes learning about the natural processes unfolding in wild areas and how plant communities interact with each other and their environment. By embracing an ecological herbalism perspective, wildcrafting herbalists and plant observers gain insights about how plant communities are changing and how they work as medicines. When we understand the landscape dynamics around us, it affects the way we practice as herbalists. We can read changes in the land, recognize the value of healthy native plant communities, and allow that wisdom to guide our relationship with plants. The following three short stories are examples of what we can learn from practicing ecological herbalism.
Chaparral and the Desert Basin
Chaparral, or Larrea trindentata, makes its home in the deserts of the Southwest and is a defining plant in the Chihuahua Desert. The Chihuahua Desert is a place of extreme weather, harsh growing conditions, and like all landscapes, is in a state of constant evolution. According to Lieutenant Beale in 1857, the region was once defined by “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres, containing the greatest abundance of the finest grass in the world…” (Gardner, 1951, p. 382). Not one of the early European or American travelers through the region mentioned the presence of Chaparral until a botanist named Perry listed the shrubs in a botanical survey in 1859 (Gardener). Gardner’s research found that by the early 1950s, Larrea was by far the most dominant plant, constituting 63% of the total shrub population having established itself on 86% and acquiring dominance on 65% of surveyed areas. Additionally, Gardner reported that only 4 of the 21 grass species known to exist in the ecosystem were found on the surveyed lands and covered a mere .36% of the acreage. In another study examining changes over 140 years, Gibbens et al. (2005) found that starting data from 1858 showed that 54% and 86% of their two study areas had no presence of Larrea at all. In contrast, by 1998, Larrea had become dominant on 20% and 59% percent of those areas (Gibbens et al.). Likewise, Black Grama, which had been dominant or subdominant on 45% of the area in 1916, held that status on only 1.2% of land by 1998 (Gibbens). Although recent research indicates that Chaparral now characterizes the Chihuahua Desert by forming dominant stands across thousands of acres, not that long ago it played a minor role in the landscape. Having relatively recently migrated long distance from ancestral populations of L. divericata in South America (Laport et al., 2012), L. tridentata has a long and successful history of advancing its range. It has done so in part due to changing environmental conditions but has been aided significantly by cattle grazing (Mata-Gonzales, 2007). Van Auken (2000) described this process as “brush encroachment” because, along with Larrea, this process includes other native shrubs such as Mesquite, which were present in the local environment for thousands of years, but in much lower densities. This is an interesting role for a native plant to play in modern wilderness, which is most commonly described as suffering from the reduction of native plant populations.
These ecological observations give us new insights into Larrea’s workings as herbal medicine because we are able to understand how the plant interacts with its surroundings and how it operates naturally. This plant has been long used for a variety of medicinal effects including liver stimulation, purification, reducing inflammation, and broad-ranging antimicrobial activity. Modern research has confirmed the effectiveness of many of Larrea’s applications and has also indicated its potential as an anti-cancer medicine (Favela-Hernandez et al. 2012; Lambert et al. 2005; Quiroga et al. 2004; Rahman et al., 2011; Snowden et al. 2014; VanSlambrouck et al. 2007). Ecological understanding further supports these uses. Larrea is a plant that rapidly spreads into new territory, usurping available resources, overtaking the ecology, shifting the biotic balances, and creating a new reality on its own terms. It is a resilient and transformative plant once its get a foothold. Depending on your perspective, you could describe it as ‘spreading like cancer’ over the land, diminishing biodiversity wherever it goes. This trait may come in handy the next time you have a nasty bacterial infection some place in your body. Also its sheer ‘brute force’ sets it apart as an herbal medicine, often relegating it to the most stubborn of infections or inflammatory conditions. As a broadly effective antimicrobial, it takes over an environment, making critical resources unavailable to other living organisms, and otherwise disrupting their habitat. Larrea’s stubborn and relentless nature also supports what recent scientific research is suggesting with regard to its potential in cancer treatments. If, in a geologically short period of time, it can transform the harsh and unforgiving environments of the major deserts of the North American Continent, forming monotypic stands thousands of square kilometers in size, imagine what it can do in the ecosystem of a human body.
Bee Balm and the Desert Mountain
Bee Balm, or Monarda menthaefolia fistulosa, is a mountain-dwelling plant of middle to upper elevation mixed conifer forests. Here in the Southwest and around the world, forest ecosystems are undergoing massive ecological changes with large-scale tree die-offs becoming one of the most obvious effects of climate change (e.g. Hicke et. al, 2013; Kliejunas et. al, 2009). While many studies in different regions of the West have been conducted with similar results (e.g. CIRMOUNT, 2006; Breshears et. al, 2005), one recent study in California concluded that the state lost an estimated 27 million trees during 2012 to 2015 with millions more hectares of forest that will likely die as drought and rising temperatures continue (Asner et. al, 2016). Although drought has been part of the long-term climate cycles of the Southwest for millennia, current and future droughts are more deadly to trees because they will be driven by the rising temperatures rather than decreasing precipitation (e.g. Breshears et. al 2005, Williams et. al 2013, Gutzler and Robbins 2011). Bark beetle populations are known to surge with warmer temperatures and slight increases in drought stress can result in exponential beetle outbreaks, with devastating consequences in areas where fire suppression policies have created dense canopies (Williams et. al, 2013). In contrast to previous recorded droughts, in which fatalities were limited to drier areas and older trees, mortality in recent droughts includes the higher and wetter areas of the range and trees of all ages (Breshears et. al). University of New Mexico climate scientist, David Gutzler (2007, 2011), has reported projections for temperatures increasing about 8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century with precipitation patterns continuing within historical ranges. Gutzler also projected no winter snowpack south of Santa Fe and all snowmelt runoff occurring one month earlier by the end of the century. Recent research by Williams et. al (2013) used tree ring data and living trees to compare forest drought stress indexes (FDSI) in the Southwest from AD 1000 to 2007. They found that previous large-scale die-offs have occurred including a mega drought from 1572 to 1587, as suggested by the scarcity of conifers older than 400 years. In order to paint a picture of future forest changes, Williams noted that between AD 1000 and 2007, the FDSI of the mega drought has been exceeded in only 4.8% of years. In contrast, this study predicts that between 2000 and 2100, 59% of years will exceed the mega drought FDSI and up to 80% in the latter half of the century. Regeneration of forests, which historically has taken place during cooler wetter years, may not take place with unrelenting heat and the progressive large-scale loss of required parent trees (Williams et. al and Redmond et. al 2013). This process ultimately leads to the transformation of pine forests into shrublands and grasslands (Williams et. al), with another study projecting that half of the evergreen forest in Western North America will become shrubland or grassland by the end of the 21st century (Xiaoyanjiang et. al, 2013). What all of this means for Monarda and other forest plants of the desert mountain ranges remains to be seen. Just as the Pleistocene montane and subalpine coniferous forests that once covered nearly all of New Mexico 18,000 years ago (Dick-Peddie, 1993) have retreated to the middle and upper elevation mountains today, further upward migration is likely in the future. As the snowline creeps up the mountain in coming years, so will the pine forests and all the companion understory plants. They will become plants of higher elevations until they have reached the top with nowhere else to go.
Monarda’s medicine is marked primarily by its stimulating, uplifting, and diffusive flow while its current ecological realm can be described similarly. It is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, styptic, antifungal, diaphoretic, and carminative. This combination of medicinal actions makes Monarda an excellent choice in formulations for respiratory illnesses, digestive ailments, microbial infections, and wound care. Scientific and ethnobotanical research supports many of these uses (Zhilyakova et al. 2009 and Dunmire and Tierney 1997) and proposes new ones including antioxidant properties for heart health (Meeran and Prince 2012) and pesticidal effectiveness for the prevention of yellow fever (Johnson et al. 1998 and Tabanca et al. 2013). Furthermore, Monarda tells us the story of the changing conifer forests of the West and the migrating plants of these ecosystems. Its medicine is often a reflection of this movement. Monarda facilitates digestive action, promotes fluidity of the lymph, and disperses stagnation in the system. Meanwhile this plant lures us into awareness about an evolving world and the new environmental conditions that are unfolding around us, ultimately evoking a sense of movement or advancement for humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Understanding this plant’s story is an invitation to begin the process of emotional acceptance within ourselves and to take meaningful action in our lives that will facilitate the process of healing for the wild places around us. Embracing this story is an opportunity for us to grow in harmony with these plant communities and become a more integral component of the wilderness by acknowledging that we a part of this interconnected system of life. We must decide for ourselves what those movements or changes are for us as herbalists and as living beings on this planet.
Yerba Mansa and the Desert Bosque
Yerba Mansa is a plant of marshy meadows, springs, and wetlands across the desert Southwest. Her primary habitat, the desert bosque, is a highly threatened ecosystem as population growth coupled with unsustainable land and water management policies cause environmental degradation of riparian areas throughout the American West. Throughout most of its history, the Rio Grande Bosque has been a system of wetlands, oxbow lakes, sandbars, and woodlands that migrated with the wild and changing meander of the river. Seasonal flooding cleared debris and enriched the soil. Cottonwoods and Coyote Willows germinated and thrived in the periodic floods and high water table. Although the valley has a long history of occupation dating back to Paleo-Indian times, it wasn’t until the 1800s that humans began to have a significant impact on the ecology. With the growing numbers of Anglo migrants in the valley came large-scale agriculture, irrigation systems, livestock grazing, and logging. These activities in turn created soil erosion, a large sediment load in the river, and increased flooding. To control flooding, a series of major interventions ensued. The 20th century was marked by the construction of major dams including Elephant Butte in 1916, Jemez Canyon in 1953, Abiquiu in 1963, Galisteo in 1970, and Cochiti in 1973 along with hundreds of miles of irrigation canals. Additional engineering projects included the draining of wetlands, dredging and entrenching of the river, and the installation of jetty jacks. These intensive controls on the ecosystem along with increasing urbanization have resulted in a 60% replacement of the entire Rio Grande system with agriculture and urban development, river flows decreasing to 1/6 of their historic levels, a significant reduction in channels and wetlands, the invasion of many non-native species, increased wildfires, and a dramatic decline in the reproduction of the native keystone species: the Cottonwood and Willows (USACE, 2003).
Today we find our Rio Grande Bosque in uncertain times. The population of mature Cottonwoods born in the last great flood of 1941 is nearing the end of its natural life (Crawford et. al, 1996) with few young trees to become elders of the forest. Invasive tree species such as Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), Salt Cedar (Tamarix chinensis), Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Mulberry (Morus alba), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) have the advantage in the absence of flooding and are expected to replace the 2 million year old Cottonwood forest by the end of the century if water management practices remain unaltered (Crawford et. al, 1996). A plethora of other weedy non-natives such as Kochia (Kochia scoparia), Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), and Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.) cover large areas. Reduced water levels threaten native plants and create a high fire danger. The balance between meeting the water needs of the thirsty Southwest and allowing enough water to remain in the wilderness for plants, animals, and the earth itself is always delicate and fraught with conflicting views. Current climate change predictions include the Rio Grande Basin having 4-14% less water in the system by the 2030s and 8-29% less water by the 2080s (Gutlzler, 2013). As the population grows, the demand for water diversion will increase and the resources available to our bosque natives will likely decline unless we make ecosystem conservation a priority.
Yerba Mansa is a plant that exemplifies how much we can learn about plants as medicines through cultivating an understanding of them ecologically. Observing this plant is the wild, knowing its favored habitat conditions, and seeing its interconnections with other elements of the landscape illuminates this herb’s personality and provides implications for its functions in the bodily ecosystem. In its wild habitats Yerba Mansa enhances the wet boggy earth by absorbing and distributing water and adding anti-microbial and purifying elements to the damp and slow-moving ecosystem. In the Rio Grande Bosque, Yerba Mansa’s rhizomes and roots spread through thick, nearly impenetrable, clay-like soil, altering and energizing the earth like a pioneer making foundational changes so that others can gain their own foothold for growth. Once a colony is established, it alters the soil chemistry and organisms, creating an environment more favorable to the growth of other plants by acidifying and aerating the soil (Moore, 1989). It functions similarly inside the ecosystems of our bodies by regulating the flow of waters, encouraging the movement of stagnant fluids, moving toxins, and inhibiting harmful pathogens, while warming and stimulating other sluggish functions in the body. Just as Yerba Mansa contributes to foundational soil conditions where it grows, it also has the ability to tone and tighten the mucous membranes improving the body’s baseline health and safeguarding against microbial imbalances. With this combination of attributes that invigorate the overall health of an organism or ecosystem, Yerba Mansa is an herb with a wide array of applications including chronic inflammatory conditions, digestive disorders, skin issues, urinary infections, mucus-producing colds and sore throats, sinus infections, hemorrhoids, oral healthcare, fungal infections, and many others. Modern research has validated many traditional uses for Yerba Mansa and also suggests it could be an effective treatment for certain types of cancer (Bussey et al. 2014; Medina et al. 2005; Kaminski et al. 2010; Daniels et al. 2006; Van Slambrouck et al. 2007). Yerba Mansa’s ability to spread into new areas, compete with established thickets of Coyote Willow or native grasses and imbed itself into the terrain, slowly transforming and vitalizing it hints at its potential workings in cancer treatments. (Read more about Yerba Mansa here.)
Wild landscapes and the plants that reside there have stories to tell. They may be ancient tales of oceans rising and receding, of relatively recent raging rivers remaking a valley by force, or even hint at water hidden underground. Plants may tell us about the changing earth, help us integrate new kinds of knowledge about the world, and ultimately show us new things about ourselves. These stories also present us with clues to the history, present experience, and possible future of the plants we love everyday. They illuminate the personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the plants we use as food and medicine and help us to work with them more effectively and more respectfully. As we become more aware of the workings of the natural world around us, we become more deeply connected to the system of interactions between people, plants, and the land. We become ecological herbalists.
This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2016). Ecological Herbalism. Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference Essay Book. 243-249.
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