As herbalists, our relationship with living plants is a priority. It is important that we personally grow and ethically wildcraft the plants used in our medicine as much as possible, and imperative that we work with and care for the land that produces the herbs we use as medicine. Working with the living plants we prepare for medicine ensures we have top quality, potent products, enhances our herbal knowledge through firsthand experience, cultivates a greater respect for nature, encourages healing of people and the environment, and helps prevent human and land exploitation.
Working directly with the plants we use in our apothecaries encourages a reciprocal relationship with our environment, a genuine love and respect for the land upon which we live. Our medicine becomes more than the end product, it becomes a living testimony to a harmonious relationship with nature, a beautiful balance of person and plant, man and medicine, life nurturing life. When we simply purchase herbs already dried, cut, and processed, we distance ourselves from nature and from our medicine, and miss out on the beauty and excitement of witnessing a plant as it grows and changes with the seasons.
Sourcing herbs from a distance greatly increases the carbon footprint of an herb and thus resulting products, and decreases our chances of knowing if an herb was ethically grown, harvested, and free from chemicals. Growing and harvesting your own plants will yield a fresh, potent, high quality plant, while purchasing it in dried form from a supplier may lessen the quality and potency, as we don’t know how recently that herb was harvested. Furthermore, the more a plant is broken down, the more surface area is exposed and prone to oxidation, reducing its potency and shelf life. This can be prevented by processing an herb as little as possible and properly storing it away from light, moisture, and heat soon after harvest. When purchasing herbs online, one must do research to ensure they’re buying a quality product that wasn’t produced with human or environmental exploitation. In a field of healing, the last thing we want is suffering to produce our medicine.
As herbalism becomes trendy, we notice more people obtaining recipes online, buying all their ingredients from bulk suppliers, and selling their products without having any real connection to the medicine they make, or having spent the time and research to develop stable, mindfully made products. Herbal preparations like Elderberry syrup, essential oils, and white sage come to mind here. High demand and people eager to capitalize on a trend contributes to overuse and misuse of plants, endangers species through unethical harvesting, and exploits land and people for monetary gain. These practices do not encourage healing of land and self and others, they do not foster a relationship with nature, but instead distance us from the source of our goods. As herbalists, we can combat these detrimental practices by mindfully sourcing our ingredients and educating the public about sustainable goods. As consumers, we can support reputable businesses and ask about the origin of our products.
While it is vital for herbalists to work with living plants and create their goods from them, we can support co-ops and organizations that supply sustainably and ethically produced herbs, spices, clays, and oils. Not everyone has the space to grow all their own herbs, the climate for specific plants, or has a good yield every year to suit their needs and that of their community, and that is when it is appropriate to turn to a trusted supplier for herbs and ingredients. For example, I purchase my spices, black tea, and green tea from suppliers because they do not grow here, they are not native or naturalized plants in my region. I purchase skullcap for myself because my plants didn’t grow this year, and will source calendula from friends because the rabbits ate mine. However, I grow and wildcraft as much as I can, and what I do not grow, I will purchase - first from local herb farms, then from herbalist friends, or finally from a bulk supplier - and I’m grateful it is an option.
Working with plants teaches us to respect the limits and boundaries of nature and that we must give back to the earth. Tending to the land and supporting healthy plant populations not only benefits us, but future generations and other plant and animal species. As herbalists, it is our duty to improve mankind’s relationship with nature and connect people to their food and medicine. Through example and education, we can do just that, and our world will be better for it.
Stinging Nettle, an herb I wildcraft for nourishing infusions, and an ingredient in my Nourishing Nettle tea.