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The Herbalist’s Chain of Custody

In my practice I often play the role of an ambassador, explaining the thought processes & approaches of a clinical herbalist. One of the ways that makes practicing herbalists distinctive from other professions is the chain of custody of their medicines, and their embedded connection with the living, breathing landscape.

Herbalists occupy & triage the continuum between patient, practice & Earth. This is especially true when they make their own medicines–they oversee and craft a chain of custody. When I supply a formula of marshmallow root & chamomille flowers that have come from my garden, I’m not offering just a product. I’m offering a deep understanding of how those plants grow, evolve, and interact with their environment. In overseeing the craft of that product, it’s not just better quality–we invite a dimension of knowing unique to our practice. We are helping our patients evolve their narrative and understanding. This is an important aspect of the long-term healing process.

It’s as if we have one hand stretching into the landscape; formulating, crafting. And with the other, we can offer another a connection, language and, in some ways, a truth.

Herbal Terminology Demystified: A Bit on Herbal Actions, Energetics & Listening to the Language of the Plants with our Bodies

(For a PDF handout version, see Resources.) Plants are complex, living beings—just as we are. And their interactions with our bodies in the context of healing can begin to be understood in terms of patterns of basic energetics: heating & cooling, drying & moistening.

Photo Nov 24, 10 53 20 AM

Herbal actions describe the observable effects of herbs in the body. Energetics refers to the overall characteristic or quality of an herb— for example, we know cucumbers are cooling and ginger is warming. This language of energetics & actions gives us a way to understand the broad spectrum of plants in a healing context. It also allows us to get creative with plants and determine substitutes when our first choice isn’t available. A number of bitter plants can be used to assist digestion. Similarly, a wide range of antiinflammatories can be called in to relievethe pain & tension associated with certain types of inflammation. Familiarity with the language of herbal actions and energetics opens our senses & imaginations to the plants around us, and ultimately helps deepen our practice with them.

Botanical medicine is an art & a science. And this is the art part. The way plants flow through us can be perceived & described in several ways. Read more

Turkey Tail Mushrooms & The Antifragility of Immunity

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Plant Healer Magazine, one of this era’s finest publications for plant aficionados.

Medicinal mushrooms have a lot to contribute to an herbalist’s practice. Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor[1]) is begging to be used, like the little kid persistently raising its hand in the classroom, “Pick me! Pick me! Pick me ppllleeaassee!” This little mushroom–so tenacious, resilient & adaptable–has so much to offer in terms of medicine. Their earthen-colored fan shapes herald the arrival of the rains as they move in and digest dead trees, turning them into soil so new life can sprout. These decomposing fungal organisms (known as primary decomposers) are vital in the cycle of life & the seasons, each one an agent in an autumnal pull back to the earth, doing the good dirty work so new life can leap forward in the next season[2].

Turkey Tail mushrooms are busy little beavers in our ecosystems, aiding decomposition & soil generation. In human & animal bodies, the story changes. They means by which they support immune function are enchanting–providing clever little nudges here & there that invigorate our immune response. They’re ubiquitous in the wild and versatile in combination with other plant medicines. To me, this makes them a key member of the apothecary. Read more

Pseudotsuga menziesii: Windows into Forest Medicine

This was one of 3 trees covered in my Trees, Humans & Healing talk at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia last weekend. I wrote an expanded piece on Douglas-fir, which may behoove the reader to peruse before or after grazing this post. 

Origins & Ecology 
Douglas-fir is the dominant tree west of the Cascade Mountains and is this continent’s second tallest tree (exceeded only by the Redwoods in the South). It’s found in coastal regions stretching South into the Santa Cruz Mountains up to West Central British Columbia, and East into Northern Idaho and Western Montana.

Douglas-fir is, as a name, a misnomer. It’s not a true fir (which belong to the Abies genus). Its genus, Pseudotsuga, translates to False Hemlock. Other common names it’s had over the years include Oregon Pine, Oregon Spruce, Red Fir. Due to confusion around the name ‘Douglas-fir,’ some botanists have proposed the name ‘Douglasstree’ as comfortably distinct from other conifer common names. It got its name from a Scottish botanist, David Douglas, who conducted a botanical expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1825. During his tour, he also named a number of other plants: Doug-fir mistletoe, Douglas aster, Douglas gentian, Douglas buckwheat, Douglas onions, and more. Its species name, menziesii, is named after Archibald Menzies, another Scottish naturalist.

Doug-firs migrated to the area at the end of the Wisconsin Ice Age 11,000 years ago when the climate transitioned from subarctic to temperate. This brought mild/wet winters & dry summers to the West—conditions which favor conifers. The first species to migrate North was Lodgepole pine. And as the area warmed, Douglas-fir began to enter the landscape.

This tree has a special relationship with fire. The seedlings are shade intolerant and require sunlight penetration through the canopy to grow. Forest fires that clear out the understory/deadwood are necessary for them to proliferate. (This also happens when an area is logged. In fact, the logging practices of the last 200 years created artificial disturbances that enabled Douglas-firs to thrive.) Doug-firs possess thicker bark and a faster growth rate than most climax trees of the area (such as Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar). This quality gives Douglas-firs a competitive advantage when the forest experiences a major disturbance such as fire. Read more

Crataegus spp: Sweet, Tender & Tough as Nails

Origin & Ecology 

Hawthorn is of the most well known herb for heart health. The genus, Crataegus, contains over 1000 species. While Crataegus species are found throughout Northern hemisphere, the best studied is C. monogyna. Our local trees are often hybridized species, and there’s great similarity between the leaves, flowers, and berries among them. They’re planted ornamentally, and readily naturalize. They readily cross-pollinate & hybridize, continually obscuring attempts at classification.

Hawthorn has been long used as a boundary marker, forming dense hedgerows. (In fact, the word haw applies to the fruit, and was originally it was an Old English term for hedge.) The trees are hardy & adaptable, tolerating both drought and high moisture conditions. The wood is dense, and the branches possess sharp thorns. Being rather short trees, they typically remain under 50’ tall.

Lore & Mythos
Hawthorn is rich with lore & recorded historical use, mostly in Europe. An alternate name for Hawthorn is Mayblossom, as the blooming of the tree heralded Mayday or Beltane in European folk traditions. The crown of Jesus Christ was reportedly constructed with Hawthorn branches. In Southern Europe, Hawthorn was considered an emblem of hope. Brides in Ancient Greece carried boughs of it to the altar, as it was sacred to the Greek god of marriage. In Ancient Rome it was used to protect babies as a tree of Cardea, the Roman goddess of childbirth. In Welsh lore, the Goddess Olwen “She of the White Track” once walked an empty universe and her white track of hawthorn petals became the Milky Way galaxy. Read more

Alnus rubra: Of Water, Purity, and Pioneering

Origins & Ecology 

There are 35 species in the Alnus genus. The name is derived from the Old English Alor, Germanic Elo which means reddish-yellow.

Alder trees have an affinity to water, and can be found in meadows, marshes, stream beds, etc. They have a smooth grey bark, and the cambium (living sapwood) stains red underneath. Alder bares both cones & catkins. Male catkins are long & drooping; Female cones are short, developing into woody cones that remain on tree throughout the Winter. (It’s also the only broadleaved tree to have cones.) They arrive often before leaves appear and are mainly wind-pollinated. Read more

Trees, Humans & Healing: Alder, Douglas-fir & Hawthorn

I presented a workshop titled Trees, Humans & Healing: Alder, Douglas-fir & Hawthorn yesterday at the 2nd Dandelion Seed Conference in Olympia, WA. Though I was sick (with a kidney infection! Argh!), it was a fantastic 2 hours spent with these 3 locally abundant & important tree species.

So why trees as opposed to a general discussion on plants? There’s something a bit different that sets them apart. Trees occupy a special space in our imagination & hearts. Their size & reach for the sky confers a sense of majesty, and the joining of earth & sky. Their long lifespan makes them an instrumental aspect of surroundings & landmarks and provides a sense of continuity that spans generations. Many traditions & cultures employ trees (and related metaphor & imagery) in their spiritual traditions and cosmos. And the branching patterns characteristic of trees are seen in many biological : ecoogical forms: rivers, veins, neurons, etc. So trees touch something deep. They also meet our physical needs with food, shelter, and medicine.

Trees & forests play a critical role in global ecological balance. They produce oxygen, remediate soil, prevent erosion, provide shade, and regulate the global weather. And we’re rapidly changing forests. At the end of the last Ice Age, about half of our planet was forested. Now it’s less than a third, with most deforestation occurring in the last few decades. There are ecological and, arguably, spiritual consequences to this rapid loss of forest ecosystems. And there are public health concerns too–increased exposure to zoonotic infections, poorer air quality, nutrient transition, and others. And, in the Pacific Northwest, our temperate rainforests are special–they have more biomass per hectare than anywhere on Earth.

So as we’re considering community and socioecological health, tree medicine & forests are a necessary component of this conversation.

Feel free to send an email for the notes here. (I’ll also be posting the monographs for these trees over the next several days.)

Interview with Mel at HerbGeek on the Future of Integrative Herbal Medicine

Hey everyone–I recently had a conversation with Mel at HerbGeek on the future of integrative herbal medicine. We discussed free clinic work, narrative medicine, whole systems design, the upcoming Dandelion Seed Conference. It’s basically my ruminations on the art & science of recontextualizion in herbal medicine–and I think you’ll enjoy it. Read the full interview here.

cal poppy dryingMelanie:  Your eclectic background includes studies and research in medical anthropology, ecological healing, and whole systems design. Can you explain how these separate fields all relate to one another and how they’ve shaped your approach to herbal medicine?

Renee: Why, thank you! You do great interviews (and feature important questions), so I’ve been looking forward to this.

Regarding these different areas of knowledge, there’s a method to the madness. It all starts with the observation that humans are doing completely unprecedented things to their bodies, other people, and other species. These disciplines and areas of inquiry–medical anthropology, environmental health, and whole systems design–offer language and insights that help us understand the unfolding story and empowers us to draft an alternative. How we understand and respond to these new evolutionary trajectories and technologies relies on the integration of currently disparate knowledge bases. Ultimately, I find the language and constructs of these areas extremely useful for understanding the human condition and illuminate new directions for integrative herbal medicine.

In 2008, I joined the researchers at the Center for World Indigenous Studies on projects relating to traditional medicine and sciences and environmental diplomacy. My post involved analyzing and building policy frameworks, and as I grew in this position I developed a great interest and respect for the language and insights of whole systems design. It helps me consider aspects of complex systems such as scale, paradigms, leverage points, systems attractors and feedback loops. Simply put, I just understand it as the science of hacking. Social hacking in particular.

The field of herbal medicine is vast, complex, and life affirming. It is humanity’s oldest form of medicine. The legacy of plants and humans in healing contexts spans hundreds of generations, and across all cultures. We’ve co-evolved with these plants–they’re an inextricably part of our bodies and identities.

In the last few decades, technological developments have totally altered our bodies and ecosystems. We have new, deeper ways in which to intervene. And these interventions are risky because we don’t yet have a grasp on the complexity of the systems that we’re tinkering with. Sometimes, or pretty often, actually, our interventions are naïve and end up damaging adaptive capacities or spur unintended consequences.

Now, I’m not anti-development, nor do I romanticize the past. I do point out that we’re moving forward in radical development as an entire species with fragmented understandings of health & ecological interdependencies. Medicine is decontextualized, the medical field is fragmented and led on a leash by corporate entities. I don’t see the reality of our ecological dependencies being considered as we’re designing future humans or plotting to colonize other planets. I don’t see much leadership from our healers on the biggest questions humanity has ever faced. Medical practice & health care should be proactive instead of purely reactive. Who’s in the driver’s seat here? Read more