Thursday, April 8, 2010

Wildcrafting Herbs And Conservation

Wildcrafting is the process of collecting herbs in the wild and processing them for consumption.  I became interested in herbs through my grandfather, William Deknatel when we lived summers in Pentwater, Michigan in a cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan.  He was an architect in Chicago, who was one of the original apprentices in 1932 with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin East in Wisconsin.  Bill and I took long walks through the forests and along streams and rivers of Michigan and he pointed out plants and animals to me with great interest.  He had an extensive collection of natural history books which I eagerly read.  I soon gravitated to plants and learned to identify them using keys and illustrations.  I would collect plants and bring them home to identify, press into specimens, and to make tea.  He was careful to confirm identities with me so that I would not mistake poisonous ones.  Having someone help and show you the habitats and identities of plants and animals is a throughly enjoyable and essential experience in a natural history education.  Bill was particularly interested in mushrooms, but I was wary of the poisonous ones and concentrated on plants.

Nettles, a good spring tonic, steamed as a green

Herbs have particular striking qualities, whether they are small plants, bushes, or trees.  They have strong smells, ranging from pungent like old tennis shoes (valerian root), through fragrant (rose flowers), to heady (mint).  They can sting (nettles) or sooth skin and burns (aloe).  They can taste bitter (yarrow), sour (rhubarb), or sweet (strawberries).  With the majority of plants, you may notice their flowers or leaves, but they may be without a particular fragrance, feel, or taste.  Herbs stand up and make you take notice.  Its as if they are speaking directly to you.  This directness is probably part of their medicinal value, as they cut through diseased states and help us return to well being.

Rhubarb, a good spring tonic, especially cooked with strawberries

Herbs have been used throughout human history for cooking and medicine.  Modern pharmacology tends to focus on extracting, isolating, and characterizing single active ingredients from plants for medicine.  The medicinal qualities of herbs are probably not solely associated with their isolated active ingredients.  Herbs and their medicinal qualities are a wonderful collection of experiences.  They grow in particular places and express compelling combinations of scent, sight, touch, taste, and thought.  Scent and taste are especially important in remembrance of how we are when in a well state.  When we go out into nature (wild or garden) to gather herbs for cooking and medicine, we are reminded of all these sensations and enter into a relationship with plants that includes knowledge of their natural history, conservation, and support for our mutual well being.
Gathering herbs in the wild is part of wildcrafting.  With the increased interest in herbs, especially from an economic view, care must be taken to contemplate the ethics of wildcrafting.  Consideration must be given to property rights, identification, abundance, available habitat, seasonal timing, processing, and storage to maintain potency.  Many herbs are rare and endangered, or are considered weeds to be eradicated.  More emphasis could be placed on observing herbs in the wild and then cultivating them in fields and gardens for harvest and making medicine.  In this way we can improve conservation of important herbal medicines, some yet to be discovered, and can improve cultivation practices of these valuable plants for future reference and use.  Herbs can lead us to wildness and teach the value of healthy relationships with nature.  The value of the medicine will depend on the spiritual state of the collector and maker of the medicine.  
Posted by michael

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