Rural America: The New Global Heartland for Traditional Medicinal Plants

by Dr. Michele Devlin

herbsforsaleheartlandThe population of rural America is changing very quickly due to the global economy, new labor needs, and an influx of refugees and immigrants to work in meatpacking, agriculture, and related fields. Nearly 200 languages are now spoken even in small states like Iowa, and some rural towns are quickly becoming home to new migrants from Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and other areas.

The use of traditional medicinal herbs for healing purposes is usually very common and well developed in many of these cultures, and migrant workers are bringing their knowledge, skills, and plants with them to their adopted homeland in the Midwest. New ethnic markets are springing up all over the heartland, owned and operated by refugee families making a thriving living from selling traditional food, clothing, medicinal plants, herbs, and other goods to their fellow newcomers and even local residents. A walk through most of these stores owned by Burmese, Congolese, Ethiopian, Marshallese, Sudanese, Guatemalan, Honduran, and many others will quickly reveal a host of traditional medicinal plants, home remedies, herbal infusions, healing foods, and other holistic healing products from their native countries. These over-the-counter items are often used enthusiastically by the immigrants, in addition to Western medicine from local American clinics. Shamans, curanderos, and other traditional healers are sometimes living in these new populations as well and maintain a wealth of historic knowledge about the use of traditional medicinal plants in their cultures. Some of these cultural groups are even starting community gardens featuring some of their beloved traditional plants.

ruralamerica-herbsforsaleLocal American residents interested in learning more about the healing practices of these newcomers and their use of traditional medicinal plants can often reach out to neighborhood ethnic associations, key community leaders, faith institutions, and store owners to connect with these migrants and learn more about their rich medicinal plant heritage.

Dr. Michele Devlin is a Professor of Global Health, and Chair of the Division of Health Promotion and Education at the University of Northern Iowa. She is a specialist in the traditional health and healing practices of immigrants and refugees around the world. Dr. Devlin may be reached at or (319) 273-5806.