FROM LITTLE ACORNS: A HISTORY OF UPS

by Ann Armbrecht

UpS was founded with an 8 by 11 flier that said, “Join United Plant Savers, an organization dedicated to the preservation of native medicinal plants ” and was distributed at the 4th International Herb Symposium. “UpS wasn’t anything at the time,” Rosemary Gladstar said. “It was just a piece of paper. But I got a tremendous response and so I knew I had to do something.”

UpS Board members and friends do a re-planting project, Hawaii
UpS Board members and friends do a re-planting project, Hawaii

At that conference in 1994, Rosemary called together a group of individuals to talk about whether others were concerned about the health of native medicinal plant populations and, if so, what should be done. “It was really an eclectic group of people,” Rosemary remembered. “In fact several people told me there was no way it would work because there was too much diversity. We had large manufacturers as well as small home businesses, wildcrafters and farmers, as well as people representing big industry. But the diversity worked. People came together in a very heartful way. They were all very committed. We found that people had been asking this question; they were already concerned. And with this concern they brought this heartfulness and that was the key.”

“Whenever we got into areas that were more conflicted, around whether or not to oppose wildcrafting or the pros and cons of big business, we would always be able to come back to the point that our primary concern was the plants. As long as we kept that as our focus, we’d be guided. And that really has been our guiding focus.”

“As we went around at that first meeting it became very clear that this was a problem. Our discussion was very non-scientific. We got a lot of criticism from the scientific community, which is valid – we didn’t have scientific rigor. But what we did have was personal contact coming from lots of individuals and long term contact, people who had been out there for thirty years noticing that plant communities were not as vital as they had been.”

Executive Board members and friends at Breitenbush Hot Springs
Executive Board members and friends at Breitenbush Hot Springs

A year later the group met again the day after the Green Nations gathering. Pam Montgomery remembered, “It was an exciting time. I can picture the whole scene, a sunny spot in the Catskill Mountains and I remember being very inspired by the idea that we could actually participate in doing something about conservation of plants before it got to be a real problem.”

“It often seems that concerns come in through the back door, only after you realize something is already gone, when it is already too late. Our idea was to look at this now when we really had a chance to do something and make an impact. It was really exciting to think that we were doing this in a way that might be new and different.”

The group decided that UpS should focus on educating people about plants and the pressures from loss of habitat, over-harvesting, and market demand. They decided to look for ways to support the sustainable harvesting of herbs rather than call for a moratorium on wildcrafting.

“In the beginning when we made this announcement, there was a lot of nervousness about what we were doing. We were talking about how people made their livelihood and we had to make sure we weren’t perceived as a threat. Most people involved in the herbal world are there because of an interest in herbs, not necessarily because they are interested in conservation. And many people who had herb programs also sold herbs, so they didn’t really want to raise questions about conservation. So UpS had to be very thoughtful as we wanted to include people who were involved in all aspects of the herbal world, not just those interested in cultivating and conserving herbs.”

“We kept saying no, this isn’t about ‘not wildcrafting’, that’s one of our great arts as herbalists,” Rosemary continued. “We kept pointing out that there were several hundred species that weren’t on this list, that were tenacious weeds and that weren’t threatened. We did ask the herbal and manufacturing community to realize that it was very bad business practice to pull up the things you depend on for your business. But it’s deeper than just being bad business. It’s not ethical. That’s really the bottom line of it. So it wasn’t really about not wildcrafting, it was about identifying plants that were sensitive that we needed to be mindful of for their sake as much as our own.”

In bringing attention to the health of particular plants, UpS highlights the fact that the plants aren’t just here for humans. Rosemary said, “We talked about the need to preserve the plants for the plants’ sake because other species of plants needed them, other insects and animals needed them. I would say that American herbalism and herbalism as we understand it in the world is really based on what the plants can do for us. We’re a very self-centered community/species because we are very young. You know with babies, it’s all about what they can get and what they can eat and the toys they can have. It takes a lot of maturity, a maturity that the human species is still working toward, to see that we’re here to give out as much as we receive.”

“And so I think that what’s happened is the herbal community has matured and is now considering what can we give back? And our first calling was to go to the plants directly.”

Rosemary paused and then continued, “I once had a dream of when the earth was forming, how it all came out of star dust in the cosmos, I could see the gardens actually being formed, watching these creatures evolve and how they became the gardeners and then over time how they always come back in force, whenever the gardens are in danger. And one of the things I see right now is that there is a strong plant community of herbalists and botanists and scientists and healers, from all over, shamans, native medicine people, who are all uniting right now. And I think it’s because the gardens are calling out, calling us back to life, maybe from the stars again or wherever it is that energy rests, calling us back to take care of what we love.”

“And in a way we’ve kind of solidified that into United Plant Savers.”

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Ann Armbrecht, Director and Co-Producer, Sustainable Herbs Program
Ann Armbrecht, Director, Sustainable Herbs Program

Ann is a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through her work with plants and plant medicine.

She is author of The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicine in a Global Industry, published by Chelsea Green Books in 2021. She is also the co-producer of the documentary Numen: the Nature of Plants, and the author of the award winning ethnographic memoir, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, based on her research in Nepal. She is a student of herbal medicine and was a 2017 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar documenting the supply chain of medicinal plants in India. She lives with her family in central Vermont.