Bioregionalism and Fad Herbs

by Howie Brounstein


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This article was originally published in Talking Leaves, Summer Solstice 1996. ©1996 by Howie Brounstein. You are welcome to reprint it as long as this paragraph is included. Feel free to send comments to me. Last update December, 1996.
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The Great American Cure-All

The average American is still searching for the one herb, the one drug that will cure everything. The same force that drove Ponce de Leon to search for the Fountain of Youth drives millions of American consumers to the health food store for the newest herb that will cure all their ills. Unfortunately, the newest herb is not likely to cure all their problems. No herb or chemical will do this. Still, many people become drawn to a favorite herb, and take it every day like a vitamin, because "it's good for you."

Any stimulant taken day after day is not healthy for the organs it effects. For example, Goldenseal is a liver stimulant. I once met a man who had been taking Goldenseal every day for three years. He came to me because he was yellow, and he didn't drink carrot juice. He had been stimulating his liver so much for so long that it started to turn off, and he had become jaundiced. In a similar vein, Echinacea increases your white blood cell count. It is an immune system stimulant, not a tonic. If you take Echinacea every day it may not be effective when you need it for a cold.

Unfortunately, this mass marketing of new miracle herbs is big business. As herbs increase in popularity this big business becomes a major force for the extinction of the most popular plants. Some of the plants commonly used that are of concern at this time include Echinacea, Echinacea angustifolia, Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, Ladyslipper Orchid, Cypripedium sp., and American Ginseng, Panax quinquefolium, to name a few. Wild Echinacea angustifolia harvests were very heavy in the last few years. This is of great concern as the wild stands may be at risk. The best thing to do if you need Echinacea angustifolia is to get it garden-grown.

Goldenseal vs. Oregon Grape

Goldenseal is an herb that could probably be listed as federally endangered if we could gather all the paperwork and somehow force it through the clogged federal system. Rumor has it that many wildcrafters have found their Goldenseal stands essentially gone. The demand greatly exceeds the availability of the herb, and prices are soaring as you read this. Many herbalists in this country are saying stay away from Goldenseal now. Major herb companies are looking for a replacement. Most stores in Eugene are starting to pare down their Goldenseal products.

I personally would use Oregon Grape Root, Berberis sp., as a replacement for Goldenseal. It contains many of the same medicinal constituents. It is local, cheap, readily available, and in no way endangered or threatened. It is a very hardy plant, easily harvested in a sustainable fashion. Over a decade's worth of personal experience with this plant has led me to believe it is a very ecologically sound plant to harvest. This is a current topic of debate and I'm sure many other upstanding herbalists will want to talk with me later. Don't you worry about that; we'll sit in our Herbal Halls, on the Internet and elsewhere, and endlessly debate the details of which herb is the best replacement. For you, just don't buy wild Goldenseal.

Endangered Herbs and Bioregionalism

Cypripedium, or Ladyslipper Orchid, is threatened or endangered, protected by law, in just about every place it grows. There is no ethical way to buy this herb. Michael Moore would say, if you use this herb you will be reincarnated as a motion detector above the front door of K-Mart. Instead of this plant, use Skullcap, Valerian, Hops, or another common herb. Wild American Ginseng is another plant that may already be gone from the earth, or nearly so, though it is not under any legal protection. HerbPharm, a company from southern Oregon, will no longer be making any Wild American Ginseng products.

These herbs are in trouble because certain small areas of one country are supplying the world. We can completely avoid this through bioregionalism. If we use the herbs that grow near us, there should be plenty to meet our needs. For example, anything from the tropical rainforest is considered politically correct nowadays. However, it is completely insane to ship a plant 13,000 miles from the tropical rainforest for a simple urinary infection, when some Dandelion from your back yard would have cleared it up at a fraction of the cost to you and to the earth. Don't mistake me: if this herb were the only cure for a specific kind of urinary infection, and all the local herbs were ineffective, then I would use the exotic. But go local first.

Crunching the Rainforest

I am currently active in a rapid biological assessment of a new biological research area off the coast of southern Chile. The good news is that there are thousands of miles of uncut old-growth temperate rainforest, similar to ours. The bad news is that the timber companies are close behind. The area most at risk on this island is the lower elevation seaside old-growth cedar forests. Technically, no one should be cutting this wood on this reserve. Still, I am aware that nomadic fishermen living on even more remote islands visit this island to cut old-growth cedar for boats. Certainly, there is plenty of cedar for nomadic fishermen. There is just not enough cedar for the Japanese, Swiss, and Northwestern timber companies to supply the world.

We are under the assumption that we can show our political beliefs by how we spend our money. Many of us feel that by buying rainforest products we will stop environmental destruction and help indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, I wonder if this is the case with most rainforest herbs, like Uncaria, Cat's Claw or Una de Gato, which is popular today. Is the average price paid to a picker more than a subsistence wage? Hungry pickers have a tendency to clear the herb completely out. Is most of the money being made is by the importer, or the indigenous folk? I am leery of many cooperative herb ventures in Central America. I have seen too many that are run by foreigners, while all the workers are indigenous. In other words, the foreigners essentially own the "cooperative" and profit much more than the indigenous people. So are we really helping anybody by buying certain rainforest products? It's best to research before you buy. There are ethical companies that do respect the local people.

So how can we remain true to our bioregional ethics when it comes to buying herbs? Use local species when possible. Buy from smaller local manufacturers. Generally, a small local company will be ethical and of high quality, or they will go out of business quickly. Most areas of the world have local herbal products that can be purchased.

Violets: Fad Herb of Choice

As for the newest fad herb, I don't think I'll wait for the new one to come around. I'll just go ahead and nominate Violets now as the new fad herb.

Why? What qualifications should a fad herb have?

1. Environmental considerations: We don't want a unique, unusual plant growing only in one area. This can cause environmental damage and gives one area or country political control. Violets are exceptionally good because we can use any Violet, Viola sp., rather than the specific Viola mostexpensiva. Everyone has violets growing near them. Around here they are plentiful, not threatened or endangered, and can handle ethical wildcrafting. Plus they grow in the garden easily. Even desert species can be grown in the arid regions.

2. Strength: A fad herb should be mild. No "ten drops only, ten more causes side effects." Let's face it, with the fad herb hundreds of thousands of folks will be taking it every day because they heard it was good for you. Maybe we should even give it to grandma. These folks will often take more of it when they feel bad. After all, "if I take more I'll get better quicker." This leads us to ....

3. Minimal side effects: Since by definition, people will eventually believe the fad herb will cure nearly everything -- that it will increase sex drive, cure cancer, arthritis, and grey hair, slow or reverse aging, and let you lose weight while reading the free newspaper -- it had better have minimal side effects. It will be mixed with a variety of pharmaceuticals, without the knowledge of the doctor. It will be taken long-term every day without true knowledge of its effects. Again, Violets are perfect.

4. Not too specific an herb; works gently on a variety of problems: Once again, because of its blatant overuse, it shouldn't be too active on any one system of the body. Plus it has more of a chance of curing everything.

One student of mine always ate the Violets that we saw on field trips. There are many Violets in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, and the students see most of them. Some are tasty, some bitter, bland, rich, or sweet. It seems as though location, species, and time of harvest make a big difference in palatability. Luckily taste is not a requirement of a fad herb.

I've seen the yellow people who have taken Goldenseal every day like a vitamin. And how many doctors are looking for a hidden low grade infection, not realizing that it's really the high doses of Echinacea stimulating the immune system whether or not there is an infection? Not to mention the Kombucha people with foul burping ... (hey ... two gallons a day, what do you expect?) No problems like these will arise from the ever-gentle Viola. But then, will I be seeing Violet-colored people in a few years?

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