Making Plant Medicine Sustainable: From Wildcrafting to Organic Cultivation

Author: Ingrid Bauer.

Ingrid With Plants
Ingrid With Plants

Five Flavors Herbs was founded with a vision to improve the health of people, the planet, and our communities by trusting the wisdom of nature. When we first began making herbal extracts 20 years ago, our audience was small, and we grew or wildcrafted many of the plants we used. We traveled up and down the West Coast to the same stands of wild plants each year: St. John’s wort, osha, yerba mansa, grindelia, yerba santa, pedicularis, prickly poppy, and many other valuable medicinals long-revered within the healing traditions of their native region. We modified traditional Chinese formulas and common European standards with these local wild plants to improve efficacy and add terroir to our herbal tincture formulas.

Ingrid and Ben
Ingrid and Ben

Wildcrafting Responsibly

By adhering to ethical wildcrafting principles, we felt confident that we were harvesting plants in a sustainable manner. We asked permission of landowners and of the plants themselves. We surveyed the area to make sure there was an abundance of the desired species throughout the region and in a particular stand. We selected only a small percentage of plants to collect and, if harvesting roots or rhizomes, tried to replant crowns or leave pieces of rhizome behind to start the next generation. We cleaned up after ourselves and made sure that our harvesting hadn’t left any trace on the landscape. And the next year, we could see that our efforts had been effective: the stand appeared healthy and abundant enough to withstand another selective harvest.

 Reckoning with a Larger Footprint

As Five Flavors Herbs has grown, and as the toll of climate change and urban sprawl have impacted wildlands across the West, we recognize that our ecological impact as a company and as a society has expanded. Many species endemic to North America are plants at risk or “to watch” for endangerment, including our beloved western osha root, yerba mansa, white sage, and eastern plants such as American ginseng, black cohosh, goldenseal, and many others listed by United Plant Savers. These developments demand that we hear the message echoed by a growing chorus of indigenous leaders, nonprofit organizations, organic farmers, and others. Relying on wildcrafted plants to supply the burgeoning herbal products industry has become unsustainable.

Growing Into Sustainability

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” If we want herbal medicine to help more people, we must protect the land, people, and plants to ensure the continuance of this practice for future generations. 

Among many efforts to improve our overall sustainability as a company, Five Flavors Herbs is reformulating our products to replace some wildcrafted herbs with more local and organically cultivated plants. This year, we replaced wildcrafted gumweed buds (Grindelia stricta and spp) with organically cultivated elecampane flowers. Both herbs support the respiratory tract in combination with other organically grown botanicals like marshmallow root, licorice root, and mullein leaf, allowing us to make formulas like our Respiratory Recoup Tincture more sustainable without sacrificing efficacy.

Sunset Ranch Sign
Sunset Ranch Sign

Over the next few years, we hope to formulate this and other lung and immune support herbal blends with organically grown yerba santa (Eriodictyon california) sourced directly from our own farm—a former cattle ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills (the plant’s native habitat). Both Grindelia and yerba santa grow wild up and down our roads and forest trails, but not in amounts bountiful enough to supply our customers’ demands. However, with proper attention to soil, water, and the unique needs of each plant species, we feel confident we will be able to coax these neighbors back into our fields and achieve organic certification for the harvests they yield.

Supporting Sustainable Plant Sourcing

Whether you’re focused on healing yourself, or on safeguarding the health of the planet for your children and grandchildren, we hope you will join our efforts toward ensuring a more sustainable way forward. Consider buying locally grown food and herbs and/or planting your own garden. Learn about and support the indigenous people where you live and discover what traditional practices can teach us about honoring our natural communities. Educate yourself about the wild weeds and medicinals in your area, and find out if these are safe and sustainable to harvest—or get seedlings from a local native plant nursery to expand the population. And of course, continue to follow and support United Plant Savers in its crucial work by learning about threatened plants and habitats in your bioregion, or by making a financial contribution to empower their efforts.

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Ingrid Bauer, M.D., M.S.
Ingrid Bauer, M.D., M.S.

Written by Ingrid Bauer, M.D., M.S. With experience that bridges Western and Eastern medicine, Ingrid Bauer brings rigorous scientific knowledge to her role as co-founder and product formulator at Five Flavors Herbs, a United Plant Savers business member. A graduate of the UC Berkeley/UCSF Joint Medical Program and the American School of Herbalism in Santa Cruz, Ingrid integrates plant-based medicine into mainstream healthcare. She is passionate about bringing holistic care to people from all walks of life. Her master’s research focused on Latino health beliefs and traditional medicine at a bilingual clinic in Oakland, and she teaches workshops about herbal medicine at conferences and schools.