Plant Stewardship

By Suzanne Tabert

Oregon Grape
Oregon Grape

Back in the late 1980s and 1990s, I worked at an herb store in the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington called Tenzing Momo. It was wildly famous for being the oldest herbal apothecary on the west coast and was, as I so affectionately called it, “a freak magnet.” I recall many wild times as lots of famous people, actors, musicians, and those in the herbal biz congregated there as workers and customers. I was the herb buyer for several years. The owner, Jeffrey, was a former biker and a very colorful character. He was instrumental in my burgeoning career as an herbalist and called me an herbalist before I felt comfortable doing so myself. He afforded me many opportunities to hone my craft as he would pass customers on to me to listen to their worries and woes and dole out rudimentary herbal advice.

During that time, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) was the herb of choice for those who wished to acquire a clean urine analysis. Remember, this was the time of the Seattle grunge scene, with musicians and roadies working day jobs to keep the roofs over their heads and head-banging at night.

Thinking back on those years, we sold a lot of goldenseal, much to my chagrin. Gallons of the bitter yellow tea were drunk and untold amounts of goldenseal capsules swallowed. I recall when word came to us to refrain from selling this deeply golden herb as the demand was far overreaching the plant populations.

Oregon grape (Mahonia berberis), so ubiquitous to the Pacific Northwest and Inland West, became the focus as an effective replacement for goldenseal, as it contained berberine, hydrastine, and other drug-clearing alkaloids. All eyes turned to the west. The amount of Oregon grape plants that were taken by the herbal extractors was staggering. It was like a plague of locusts came through the richly fertile forests. I dare not call them wildcrafters, but extractors, as the title wildcrafter denotes a stewardship of the land, including both flora and fauna.

Avaricious herbal extractors are concerned only with the price they gain from their booty.

When the demand for Oregon grape waned as the then latest fad herb, the plant was able to recoup its losses. Once again when we enter these sacred places, Oregon grape thrives and is abundant.

I would venture to say that as herbalists, wildcrafters, naturopaths, teachers, and medicine makers, it is imperative to do the research before harvesting or advising clients to utilize a plant that may be threatened or endangered. The earth’s plants are so precious. While I identify all plants when teaching my apprentices, I will strongly recommend we do not harvest certain ones. Often, there will be other plants, more commonly found and abundant, that can be used instead.

Certainly, herbs can cure. Herbs can also alleviate symptoms enabling the body to more easily heal from the root cause. Truth be told, information pertaining to age, health and family history, current and preexisting conditions, diet, constitution, lifestyle, stressors, tech usage, pharmaceutical drugs, etc. should be addressed before “shooting from the hip” with herbs. Herbal medicine is strong medicine that may be better served as an adjunct in treating someone holistically, not the initial go-to.

While I may be preaching to the choir, we must own the responsibility and do our part to wrap our energetic arms lovingly and with purpose around our threatened plants and do what we can to ensure their survival. They are counting on us.

Suzanne Tabert is a bioregional herbalist, adjunct professor at Bastyr University, and director of herbal education at the Cedar Mountain Herb School in Sandpoint, Idaho and Seattle, Washington (cedarmountainherbs.com). Her passion is taking students to wild places and giving them tools to engage and connect with flora, fauna, and the exquisite beauty of nature. Suzanne has been inspiring students with joy and excitement for all-natural living for over 30 years.