Shifting the Paradigm: Consciousness in Plant Medicine

by Shantree Kacera

In the last decade, especially the previous year or two, the field of herbalism has been shifting—the consciousness of both herbalists and the general public has changed as our climate and landscapes have around the whole world. The shift to looking through the eyes of our ecological selves has come more into the forefront.

In Carolinian Canada the landscape has changed dramatically since I started exploring, studying, and practicing herbalism in the 1970s. This beautiful green island tucked into the southward thrust of the Great Lakes is Canada’s richest and most endangered ecosystem. It is surrounded by 20% of the fresh water in the world. This life zone is actually the northernmost edge of the deciduous forest region in eastern North America and is named after the Carolina states.

It is a unique ecosystem zone found in southern Ontario. The term “Carolinian” refers to its similarity to the forests found in North and South Carolina in the southern United States. The Carolinian zone in Canada is extremely rich in both plant and animal species. Even though this region’s habitats and ecosystems include examples of sand dunes, marshes, tall-grass prairies, savannas, wetlands, streams, shorelines, and other aquatic habitats, it is the southern-type deciduous forests that characterize this unique Canadian ecosystem. Fifty-eight percent of these ecosystem types are considered rare. Each of these ecosystems has a distinctive set of species. Of all the plants on the UpS “At-Risk” and “To-Watch” Lists more then half of these are rare, threatened, or endangered here in this fragile bioregion of the world.

It is the country’s most diverse and most threatened ecological region. Over 500 species in the region are considered rare.

  • 25% of Canada’s population on 0.25% of its area
  • Over 7 million people live in this ecosystem and best farmland in the country
  • Forest zone only covers 550 km, or 0.1% of the total forest area of Canada
  • More endangered and rare species than any other life zone in the country
  • 80% of the Carolinian region was covered with vast tracts of maple, ash, elm, oak, and pine forests, mostly in old-growth condition.
  • A great diversity of wildlife of all kinds, including many species not found elsewhere in Canada
  • Less than 2% of the landscape is in public ownership
  • 73% of the landscape is in highly productive agriculture
  • Forest cover has been reduced from 80% to less than 4% in key counties with almost no old-growth
  • Forest interior has been reduced to just 2%
  • Wetlands reduced from 28.3% to less than 5%
  • It is estimated that some 2,200 native species of herbaceous plants grow here
  • Less than 5% of Carolinian Canada is currently protected as natural landscapes
  • There are 77 species of trees alone
  • It is also the richest life zone with the most diversity in Canada.


The climate of this region is the main reason it forms a unique ecosystem. Affectionately termed the “banana belt” of Canada, this zone boasts the warmest average annual temperatures, the longest frost-free seasons, and the mildest winters in Ontario. For example, Point Pelee near Windsor averages over 170 frost- free days, while Guelph, which is just north of the Carolinian boundary, has an average of only 135 frost-free days per year.

Rare Species

The most unique feature of the Carolinian life zone is the number of rare species found here. The region boasts fully one-third of the rare, threatened, and endangered species found in all of Canada. Sixty-five percent of Ontario’s rare plants are found in the region, and 40% are restricted to the Carolinian zone. Included in these are trees, such as the pawpaw, blue ash, tulip, slippery elm and the Kentucky coffee tree; and herbaceous plants, such as American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), false unicorn root (Chamaelirium luteum), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp.), wild yam (Dioscorea villosa), both black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), true unicorn (Aletris farinosa), Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria), trillium (Trillium spp.), our provincial flower, and our only cactus, the Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifisa). The rare southern flying squirrel, while also known from a few sites has its main habitat along the north shore of Lake Erie.

Shifting Our Paradigm – Living the Solution

In the last decade there has been a major shift among the many herbalists, forest gardeners, and foragers to localize our medicines and integrate native foods into our daily life. We are weaving herbal medicine, wild nutrition, and forest gardening into the mentorship programs offered at The Living Centre. We approach the solution through consciousness of re-wilding and of the interconnectedness of all things and looking at wisdom of wild plants that are native to this bioregion. We are designing a one-kilometer native plant trail using re-wilding perennial polyculture practices.

Wild Perennial Polycultures

The re-wild strategy we are applying is done through a native perennial polyculture mapping process creating a dynamic, self-organizing multi-species community. This design process is done in such a way that entails the growing of a diversity of perennial plants, which imitates the diversity of natural ecosystems. It is a form of re-wilding both the landscape and practitioner. This is achieved through shifting the lens of the observer to see forward in time of the regeneration potential, a process that can occur by stepping in and being an active ecosystem participant. The intention in this process is to set ecosystems in motion to support their return back to wholeness to reach their optimal potential.

The other essential key to supporting the shift for the participants is asking each individual to commit to a regular practice of what we call “Tree Time”, a time to observe and connect to an ecosystem, to learn and be inspired. In addition we ask folks to integrate native wild foods into their daily life. For we “Are Where We Eat”, we encourage folks to experiment and create new wild and native delicious recipes. In gratitude a shifts happens—the internal ecological landscape to a full spectrum and expression of being a wild steward—to now act in shifting the external landscape in the art of Save – Steward – Seed for the future.

Go Wild Grow Wild – In the Zone Carolinian Canada

There is a major shift happening amongst the general public and the plant and herb lovers through a movement launched last year called In the “Zone” to encourage folks to Go Wild Grow Wild and create native foraging sanctuaries. This is to educate, demonstrate, and inspire folks in using, conserving, and revering native plants.

Thousands of folks are creating these native habitat sanctuaries and becoming intimate with and being a voice and a wild steward of living the solution and shifting the paradigm—a return of the sacred.

The vision is to plant one million forest gardens in Carolinian Canada by 2020 with native medicines and foods to create a resilient culture. As each person acts as ecosystem participant with a clear intention, applied ecological knowledge, and wisdom, we can actually benefit the earth with our existence by creating responsible managing and stewarding healthy ecosystems, which achieve miraculous abundance and regenerate the earth as well.

Shantree Kacera RH., D.N., Ph.D. isShantree Kacera, RH., D.N., Ph.D. is the founder and co-director of The Living Centre (1983) and Living Arts Institute, located outside of London, Ontario in the heart of Carolinian Canada. Shantree received his doctorate in Nutritional Medicine and Herbalism in the 70s. He has an integrative seasonal approach to his teaching students, mentees, and apprentices through his mentorship programs in Herbal Medicine, Wild Nutrition, and Forest Gardening. He is one of a few Canadian Herbalists awarded ‘Honouring our Elders’ by the Canadian Council of Herbalist Association who have spent at least 25 years offering outstanding contributions to the field of herbalism.