All my life I’ve had a deep love and fascination with plants. I grew up on a small dairy farm in Sonoma County, a plant rich paradise. My grandmother lived with us or near us through most of my childhood. She was a survivor of the Armenian genocide and use to tell us it was her belief in God and her knowledge of the plants that saved her life. And she felt it was her literal duty to teach us, her grandchildren, about plants. I was her most willing student! When I was in the 7 and 8th grade, my school projects were on edible and medicinal plants of Sonoma County.
I can’t say I actually knew I was going to be an ‘herbalist’ when I was younger. I mean, it wasn’t actually a career option back then! But I knew some how intrinsically that I would be called into the service of the green. When I was in my twenties, I took off on a horseback trip with my toddler son and a young girlfriend. We rode horseback from Sonoma County to the Trinity Alps of northern California ~ a three and a half month odyssey. It was a great adventure! We wildcrafted almost everything we ate along the way and depended fully on plants for food and medicine. My love for plants only deepened. When I returned from that trip in the fall of 1972, I opened my first herb store, Rosemary’s Garden, in the small town I grew up in. It’s still thriving after all these years, though I no longer own it. It was probably in the herb shop that I began to realize that my life work would be with herbs. It was during that time that I co-founded a small medicinal tea company, Traditional Medicinals, that later grew into the countries largest manufacturer of medicinal teas, started a small herbal practice and began teaching classes and hosting herbal conferences to gather other herbalists together. So, I would say it was in the early 70’s when I was in my early 20’s that I first began working in earnest as an herbalist.
My grandmother, Mary Abelian Egitkanoff, was my first teacher. She never professed to be an ‘herbalist’ or to have any special knowledge, but she taught simply, powerfully. She would take us out to the gardens and teach us about ‘weed medicine’ and taught us how to be self sufficient using plants for medicine and food. My other mentor who I’ve been friends with since my early 20’s is Juliette de Bairacli Levy, a world renowned herbalists and animal rights activist. She had a profound influence on my life not to mention thousands of other people’s lives, as well. I first ‘discovered’ her through one of her early herb books in an obscure corner of the local library and was so moved by her writings and her life that I wrote a long fan letter to her. Several months later, I received a return letter. That sparked a friendship that continues to this day. We wrote to one another for many years, until finally, when I was in my 30’s, I went to Greece to meet her. We still keep in touch with each other. She’s in her late 90’s now and living in Switzerland.
Other early mentors included Norma Myers and Dr. John Christopher both great characters whom I had the opportunity of studying with. Later, when I moved to New England, I became fast friends with herbalists Adele Dawson and Tasha Tudor. Both of these wise elders had a profound influence on my life. I’ve also been fortunate to have studied with many of my ‘green’ contemporaries; one of the benefits of running an herb school was choosing teachers you wanted to learn from! I got to study with some of the best of new crop coming up: Michael Moore, Jeanne Rose, William LeSassier, Michael Tierra, Cascade Anderson Geller and so many others…..We were all young then..Now we’re nearing the ‘elder years’ ourselves!
I think the best products are those made with quality herbs, integrity, ethics, and clear intention. Standardization in no way implies ‘better or more efficacy’. One doesn’t need fancy labs or high quality equipment to make good herbal products. Advertising implies otherwise, but advertising is deeply invested in whatever it’s trying to sell, often with little concern for the actual product. Often when one looks beneath the advertising and fancy labels, one finds that’s where all of the intention has gone into; the advertising.
The best way to ensure quality is to make your own herbal products and grow your own plants, organically. Or if making your own herbal products isn’t your cup of tea, then buy from local organic growers and producers known for their high quality herbal products. There are some excellent companies making great herbal products today. Most of them use time tested methods to determine the quality of their herbal products and aren’t as concerned with ‘standardized’ products as they are with producing high quality products that are effective and ethical. If ‘standardizing’ they are doing whole plant standardization and testing the products to ensure that the constituents are active, not manipulating the products to make them higher or lower.
Standardization implies that because the product is made in a lab it is safer, more effective, better. It implies that these store bought products are better than what people can make in their home ‘labs, kitchens and apothecaries’. Absolutely not the case. Herbal medicine has been made for thousands of years by hand by people without fancy or expensive equipment. Quite possibly, were ‘modern drug medicine’ made with the same integrity and consciousness that most herbalists use to make their products, we’d seen more active and less harmful drugs. Efficacy is not determined by purity only (i.e. isolates), but by quality, ethics, intention. These help make good plant medicine work even better.
Herbalism and herbal products by its very nature are difficult to ‘standardize’. How does one standardize soil microbes, the sunlight, the amount of rain that produces each crop of plants? These are all as important to the healing constituents of the plants as what has been deemed by science to be the ‘active chemical constituents’.
Furthermore, standardization is a complex issue. There are several methods of ‘standardizing’, and most ‘consumer’s’ (I hate that word) don’t know the difference. Which is unfortunate because some of the methods used to standardize a product are highly questionable, even unethical. When a product is standardized, that information and the method used to standardize should be included on the label.
This isn’t to say, I’m against ‘standardization’. I’m not, it can be another tool used to determine the quality of a plant medicine, but it is not, as the marketers want us to believe, necessary for high quality products and standardized products is not necessarily higher quality or more effective than other herb products. Qualities such as organically and/or bio-dynamically grown, ethical wildcrafting, sustainable harvesting are not often considered in the process of standardizing.
Standardizing doesn’t ensure greater efficacy. Often plants are ‘standardized’ to a ‘marker’ or ‘active ingredient’ that is later found to be not the ‘active’ ingredient at all, as in the instance of hypcercin in St. John’s Wort. The Truth of the matter is that there is no single active ingredient in any of the plants we use, but a rich and complex synergistic action of chemicals working together. That’s the beauty and strength of herbal medicine.
Standardization doesn’t ensure quality. Some of the techniques used to ‘standardize’ plants don’t even use plants as the base of the product but instead are using isolates from other chemicals. ‘Standardization’ hardly implies using high quality herbs and solvents. Several of the techniques used to extract isolates are highly toxic materials such as hexane and methyl-chloride. Not what I want in my herbal products.
A second method of standardizing is isolating the ‘marker’ or ‘active ingredient’ from the plant and creating an ‘isolate’. This ‘isolate’ resembles a chemical drug far more than an herbal remedy which is comprised of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of active ingredients. Pure isolates are usually extracted with strong solvents such as hexane, methyl-chloride, acetone, etc, (information, of course, which is never put on labels) and often standardized to high percentages that are never found in nature. You would think it would be easy to recognize these ‘standardized products’ because of the high percentages, but not the case. Isolates are often diluted down to the more normal ranges found in nature. So, you isolate ingredients with toxic chemicals to bring the ‘standardized’ isolate range to normal? This is not herbal medicine.
By far, the most questionable way of ‘standardizing’ is spraying on an ‘isolate’ (the isolated constituent of a plant) onto an inert substance which often isn’t even an herb. This is definitely not ‘herbal medicine’. This method is usually used by mass marketed products as it’s very complex and expensive to do.
Not as important as what is in the bottle, that’s for sure! But labeling is important as it’s our way of knowing what exactly is in the bottle that we’re purchasing. In fact, I’d like to see more information such as method of standardization used, if a plant is wildcrafted, source of origin (i.e. where the plant or products if from), etc but I realize this amount of information gets very cumbersome and won’t fit on the tiny labels on containers. But important information such as wildcrafted or organically cultivated, date made, percentage of ingredients, any chemicals used in the processing, where the product is being made, this kind of information is important for us to know.
United Plant Savers (UPS), non-profit education corporation dedicated to preserving native medicinal plants.
In the mid-1980’s the herb market was going off the charts. But very few people were asking where the plants for all the product were coming from. Sustainable was hardly the ‘hot’ topic o f the time. It was common practice for companies to base their best selling herbal products on plants that were gathered from the wild; i.e. wildcrafted. European and Asian markets were also depending on North American wildcrafted medicinal plants and large amounts of plants were being shipped abroad. Some of these plants such as American ginseng had been shipped to the Asian markets since the 1700s and were already in demise in the U.S. and Canada. While poor logging practices, habitat destruction and urban sprawl are the main reasons for the demise of our native populations of medicinal plants (not to mention animals and other ‘natives’), the rapid growth of the herbal industry along with its emphasis on wild crafted plants played its part.
Around the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was this growing concern among herbalists and other plant lovers about the diminishing plant populations and what it was that we could do about it. In 1994 at the 4th International Herb Symposium, I invited a group of fellow herbalists to gather and discuss the situation. It was an informal but very spirited event and it was there, at the 4th IHS, that we founded United Plant Savers. A non profit organization, UpS’s mission is preserve and conserve Native American Medicinal plants and the habitats they grow in. As ‘Stewards of Healing Herbs’, members of UpS work to ensure an abundant renewable supply of native medicinal plants for generations to come, and more importantly, for the Earth herself. We do this through a variety of projects that include educational events and material, plant rescues and plant give aways, better land stewardship, creating botanical sanctuaries, and through UpS books and journals on medicinal plant conservation. .
I love this question, because I believe the greatest change happens in ‘our back yards’. If I want to change the world, I need to change my world first….
For helping to conserve our native medicinal plants, I suggest starting with the simplest steps: 1) Be plant-conscious when buying herbs and herbal products. Don’t buy wildcrafted herbs that are considered ‘at risk’ and/or endangered (see the UpS At Risk list) unless you know the person who is wildcrafting them is sustainably harvesting from their own back yards. Of course, if wild crafted herbal products are made from common weeds such as dandelion or burdock, there’s no problem! 2) Purchase herbs and herbal products that are organically cultivated, thus helping to preserve not only plants, but another endangered species, the American farmer. 3) Create a ‘Botanical Sanctuary’ in your yard and plant native medicinal plants in your garden landscape. It’s amazing what planting a few ‘natives’ in your garden will do. It helps to restore the ‘wild spirit’ of the land. Your garden will become begin to attract more native butterflies, frogs, and birds when you plant native plants back into your landscape. 3) Participate in plant rescues; when roads and subdivisions are being built get permission to relocate the native species. 4) Join UpS. Become a Steward of Healing Herbs. Though a small organization, members get many wonderful benefits including plant give aways, an excellent Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, and opportunities to participate in educational events.
I think it’s wonderful the amount of herbal education that’s available today. There are several excellent schools of herbal studies, wonderful apprenticeships where students can work directly with one teacher over a period of time, and conferences and events that happen throughout the year. Not to mention the hundreds of herb books that are now available and new one’s being published every year!! It’s quite dizzying, really! So there are wonderful opportunities for herbalists to study these days. But do I think that formal education is a must? No. Absolutely not. It can be helpful and insightful, but not necessary to becoming a good or even great herbalist.
I think of all the great herbalists I’ve known in my life, both in this country and abroad, and most of them, even those who I consider my contemporaries, are `self taught’. Not to imply that these people didn’t study! Often it was a rigorous course of studies that lasted their whole life, but it was ‘life study’ not formal education. Almost every elder I known and studied with learned from an elder who passed the information down to them, or they traveled and learned from many different people as part of their life journey. And these are extremely wise and gifted herbalists. Not many people I know learned about herbalism at schools because herbal schools weren’t available until fairly recently. Even in other countries that were more favorable towards herbalism, herbal schools were rare except perhaps in England.
It is wonderful to have these great courses of studies that offer so much in education to the herbal student. But I wonder what is lost in this ‘formal’ training. Perhaps nothing at all and its all good. But when I look at the amazing creativity that grew from these ‘self taught’ herbalists who set their own course of studies and had to rely on their own ingenuity at times ~ and who also learn directly from the plants themselves ~ I think perhaps it stimulates creativity and self sufficiency and perhaps puts us in touch with the ancient masters of plant lore better than a modern class might do.
The most one learns about plants one learns from the plants themselves. They really are ancient wise beings and we often, in our formal course of training, forget to take the time to communicate with them directly. There is so much to learn about their chemical constituents, which herbs work for what diseases and body systems, etc, that often there’s not time to spend with the plants in the fields to learn their ancient healing songs. In most ‘old schools’ of herbal training, one was taught how to communicate directly with the spirits of the plants because, the ancients knew, it was from the plants themselves that we learned the most.
I’ve had so many its hard to know which to share…. Ah, this one might be good!
It was in the early years of the California School of Herbal Studies, an herb school I founded in California in 1978. It’s considered to be one of the longest running herb schools in the country. The CSHS had been running for a few years with an ever growing student body. The school was doing well. We were located in the country, had beautiful herb gardens, a lovely little school house, lab and library. Though we taught a wide spectrum of courses, the foundation was traditional or ‘village herbalism’. But as more and more people became interested in herbalism, the trend started for more scientific studies, often time animal studies, and plants began to be dissected into constituents, rather than whole plant medicine. I remember going through great angst about this, should I modernize the school, add more scientific classes, chemistry, biology, and get a few degrees myself in order ‘to keep up with the times’. I thought about this for quite a while, really torn. I was young. I didn’t want to get ‘left behind’. But whenever I’ve had doubts about my work, or the plants, or my life, I go to the plants and if I listen deeply, I usually get a very clear message. And that’s exactly what I did. I went to the garden… and there amongst the plants I got a very clear directive to keep the school a traditional based herbal training program. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think that science or chemistry or biology, etc. can’t add to herbalism. I think it does. But it means that I don’t think it’s necessary for the practice of good herbal medicine to have that kind of information. More importantly to me is to be an herbalists that knows the plants inside and out, who studies them in the ‘field and woodlands’ as much as in the lab. To know the science of plants, what comprised them chemically, is interesting and important, but not nearly as important as knowing how the whole plant works together and/or synergizes its energy with other plants in the formulas. It’s understanding the energetic of the plants, illness and im-balance, and the human being.
This changes with the years…but for now its Nettle. Why? It’s so delicious and nutritious! Rich in vitamins, minerals and trace minerals, it makes delicious soups, casseroles, and specialty dishes such as nettle spanakopita! Yum! It’s abundantly sustainable; found growing throughout most the U.S. it’s a resilient weed that is easy to grow and harvest. And it’s a safe and potent medicine and is effective for reproductive imbalances, allergies and hay fever, and for liver and digestive disturbances. So there you have it, a grand weed that taste good and is good for just about everything. Oh, one other thing… I love it also because it’s quite menopausal in its personality…healing and giving when treated nicely, but bump up against it and it will sting you bad!
Oh, another big question…. I see that herbalists are at a crossroads right now and that the decisions that are being made today, by this generation of herbalists, will have a long time effect on herbalism and how it’s practiced in this country. On one hand there is the ‘standardization, certification, legalization’ school of herbal thought, the school that believes that in order to be more ‘acceptable’ and available, herbalism needs to become more mainstream, to fit into current medical standards and even politics. And t his, somehow, this will make it ‘safer’ as well. That comes up a lot in these discussions; the need to standardize and legalize herbalism and herbalists so that there’s greater safety in using herbs for the public. This always seems an odd argument to me given that the most sanctified, legalized, standardized system of healing in the world, modern allopathic medicine, is also one of the least safe and hazard ridden (4th leading causes of death in the U.S. today is reactions to properly prescribed prescription drugs) while herbal medicine has a very low rate of is considered one of the safest systems of healing in the world.
On the other hand, there are those herbalists who don’t feel you need regulations and restrictions, nor government agencies, to create better standards, more effective medicine and/or greater safety. . Herbalism has always been a people’s medicine, inexpensive, readily available, the wisdom inherent in the plants passed down in the community from one generation to the next. Its also one of the safest systems of healing practiced in the world and when herbs are used as they were traditionally (i.e. before single plant constituents and high potency extracts) the safety record goes up even higher.
Which fork of the road will I take? I believe in traditional herbalism. Its an ever changing ever growing system of healing, fed by new information, new discoveries, but its foundation is based on an ancient knowledge of the plants and a respect for the plant communities. I don’t think we need to set standards (whose standards?), or to certify (who’s certification process) or also love all the new information, science and spiritual, that comes along to enrich our ancient and ever changing traditions.
Katherine J. Turcotte, Freelance Writer
Author Interview Coord