Knowing about plants, caring about plants

It is hard to care about strangers. For most of us, it is easier to care about those close to us. When we really know a person, a place, an animal, or a plant – we are more likely to care about them.

For herbalists, plants are our livlihood, but Australian herbalists are in a difficult position as many of the herbs we use are strangers to us.

The herbs we use are generally not native to this country, and the reasons for this will be expanded on in later blogs. In addition, we don’t have a strong medicinal plant growing industry, so the plants we use are not locally grown.

The majority of plant medicines, be they prescribed by a healthcare practitioner or self-prescribed by a patient, are products which are made from starting material that is grown overseas. Which means that we know them as extracts rather than as living plants.

Thus, while educational institutions provide rigorous herbal and naturopathic education (herbal medicine is taught here either stand-alone, or as part of naturopathy) and the sales of herbal products are healthy, herbalists here generally know a lot more about products than they do about plants.

Because many herbal supply chains are long and not transparent, it is difficult for the practitioner or consumer to know where and under what conditions a medicinal plant was grown and harvested. And when we don’t know this, we can’t adapt our practices in response and so we are reduced to becoming only consumers of this resource – it is much more difficult for us to participate in caring for it.

What practical steps can we take to get to know more about the plants we use?

1. We can educate ourselves about the source of our plant materials as far as is possible, by visiting manufacturers websites, asking for more information;

2. We can pay attention to the part of the plant used and the length of time the plant takes to mature;

3. We can pay attention to natural disasters and civil unrest, and educate ourselves about how this might affect medicinal plant supply – eg the effect of trade sanctions on saffron in Iran; the effect of Cyclone Winston on kava in Fiji.

saffron flowers in basket with pickers behind

Supplies of saffron in Kashmir are dramatically decreased due to climate change

4. We can visit herb gardens and the herb gardens at our local botanic gardens to educate ourselves about ‘how the plants grow’ – what they look like, how big they are, how quickly they grow;

5. We can plant a herb garden and grow some of our favourites, and where we have the space, use some of these plants or other local plants to make our own medicines.