A Golden Opportunity

The Sacred Seeds Program, supported by New Chapter, sponsored the Nurturing Your Botanical Sanctuary workshop. This event took place on October 1st and 2nd, with experts, academics, and land stewards convened at Goldenseal Sanctuary in Rutland Ohio, which is the headquarters of the United Plant Savers (UPS) network. Their uniting force was a workshop focused on sanctuaries, sacred natural areas, and the conservation and cultivation of medicinal and rare plants.

Nurturing Your Botanical Sanctuary had 33 attendees representing nine states and Canada, making this a dynamic, international debut event. So moved by the work being done by UPS and Goldenseal Sanctuary, and the lore of the sanctuary land itself, many described their journey to Goldenseal as a pilgrimage. Some were former Goldenseal interns, most have sanctuaries of their own, or recently acquired land they wish to nourish with native, rare, and medicinal flora. The goal of the event was to create dialogue to improve the reach of the UPS and Sacred Seeds Network, to serve as a potential model for future workshops at other locations, and to facilitate start-up sanctuaries.

fields o goldIn its own words, the mission and work of UPS is “to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat while ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come…To this end, United Plant Savers established one of our most important projects: the Botanical Sanctuary Network. As we became more deeply involved in the complexities of medicinal plant conservation, we realized that one must first preserve and protect the habitat in which our native plant communities thrive.” Goldenseal Sanctuary was the first UPS Botanical Sanctuary.

Goldenseal Sanctuary is unique in two important ways. It was the first botanical sanctuary in the U.S. dedicated to the conservation of at-risk medicinal herbs. It is also speculated that the 5 plus acres covered in goldenseal may be home to the largest single population of wild goldenseal on the planet.

Goldenseal’s commitment to the land extends from its mission statement down to the interpretive signs stationed around the property. The official sanctuary sign is carved from a white oak tree that was felled by a tornado. Located in the Appalachian foothills of southeastern Ohio, near the West Virginia state line, the panorama of the sanctuary is quintessentially pastoral. Country roads wind by fields that are dotted with barns and bordered by forests. Within these forests is where people turned for medicine. However, the property and surrounding land has not always been one of a peaceful sanctuary.

In more recent times, people have turned to the forest for money.
Considered one of the most impoverished areas in the nation, the monetary incentives of mining were quickly undertaken. Today the sanctuary has been restored, but still bears scars from where the land was exploded to collect coal.

Goldenseal, or Hydrastis canadensis, is used to treat inflammation, digestive woes, respitory troubles, immune system weakness, and support a healthy mucus membrane. It has also been shown to have antifungal and antibacterial properties. It is popularly used in many medicinal remedies.
The sanctuary takes a multidisciplinary approach to its management. This is showcased in its onsite educational and research center, repository of native medicinal plant germplasm (seeds or tissue that is maintained for the purpose of breeding, preservation, and research uses), propagation facility, sustainable land use model, and status as an ecotourism attraction. Sessions at the conference addressed many topics, including mapping and organizing tools, place-based art education and observation, sacred area management around the world, and of course, ethnobotany. One attendee said of the many presentations, “…Topics were well ordered and the presenters were skilled. It was a good balance of multiple areas, so that there was enough diversity in the content to really walk away with enough resources to define my interests and have the ability to start pursuing them.”

Ethnobotany, as defined by one workshop presenter, is considered the study of the interface between people and plants. The inescapable reality is that people and plants are connected. In Goldenseal’s case, both rely on each other.

Healing the land after exploitative mining, and facilitating responsible use of goldenseal and other medicinal plants is still only part of the solution. The sanctuary is bordered by private land. Many landowners are working together, and with the sanctuary, to link hiking trails, management practices, and community ties. More than 500 species of plants and half of the designated UPS “At Risk” native medicinal plants are found in the sanctuary.

Challenges that attendees mentioned facing in their own endeavors were informing people about their sanctuary, gaining support, and how to legally (and most beneficently) establish their sanctuary.  The vast majority of participants left the workshop inspired and better prepared to grow, as attendees expressed:

“I really felt a green spark from this conference and I will take a lot away from this that will help inspire my future endeavors. I very much felt a great, intimate vibe from this gathering…Thanks!”

“[I’m] inspired to continue involvement with environmental education in my
community; also use federal and state resources!”

When asked what they will do differently as a result of the workshop, participants said they would: “Pursue designation as a botanical sanctuary. It now seems both realistic and achievable,” and “Grow more at-risk medicinals, and forage wild edibles.”