Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry
Written by Ann Armbrecht
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2021
Reviewed by Angela Tanner
In The Business of Botanicals (Chelsea Green Publishing), author and anthropologist Ann Armbrecht embarks on a quest to understand and reveal the intricate and sometimes contradictory processes of bringing botanical products from the places they grow to the hands of consumers.
Many advocates and practitioners of herbal products purchase them because they believe they contribute to a natural lifestyle in harmony with the living systems around them. It can be relatively simple to grow and use these plants on a local scale. However, as with many other forms of agriculture, as the demand for botanicals increases worldwide, the methods to harvest and produce them are not as simple. Large-scale monocultures of herbs grown in open fields that used to be natural habitats are not illustrative of ecological harmony. Neither are the chemicals that are often used to increase yields. But a popular alternative—harvesting plants from the wild—comes with its own set of negative impacts. When the herbs are no longer connected or supportive to the systems around them, are they functioning in the way the users intend? Do they still contain at their core that vital life source that is important to so many?
After a brief history of several founders and influencers of today’s herbal industry, Armbrecht describes her travels, where she looks for evidence that the holistic integrity of plants can be preserved, from the soil to the hands that harvest them, to the bodies of those at the end of the chain. She talks to people at large and small companies, looking for places in the existing web of production where high-quality harvests and ecological balance are maintained. But, if that delicate balance does exist, she wonders, is it able to persist in the face of capitalism, or will the methods and processes of bringing the products to a profitable market always degrade that integrity by default? Under what conditions could the herbal industry’s ecological, economic, and philosophical needs all co-exist at a large scale?
At Viriditas Wild Gardens Farm in Oregon, we see an encouraging example of a compromise between harvesting plants from the wild and growing them using traditional methods. Here the plants are grown as part of a polyculture to imitate how they grow naturally in the wild. This method is also known as Forest Gardening. In forest gardening, biodiversity is intentional, with the understanding that each plant has different qualities to contribute to the soils and other systems of a local ecology. Instead of growing each species in its separate footprint, layers are created, with taller, deep-rooted plants sharing soil space with shallow-rooted ground covers. Many medicinal plants spread naturally, and they often intermingle, connecting with each other through root systems and mycorrhizal networks. This type of farming has the potential to help preserve a sense of place and connection within harvested medicinal plants or their viriditas. The Latin word viriditas translates literally to “green-ness” and was frequently used to describe nature as a divine healing power by Hildegard von Bingen, a Benedictine abbess who excelled at herbology and philosophy, among other studies.
Like other methods, forest gardening also has its challenges, such as ensuring harvests are pure given so many intermingling plants. What if chickweed accidentally gets mixed into the mint, or a noxious weed population chokes out an entire crop because it was harder to notice and control beneath the layered plantings? For so many who depend on harvesting and processing medicinal herbs to make a living, are there ecologically sustainable production methods that are just as profitable and efficient as other, more traditional techniques? What happens to the plant after it leaves the farm? Will it still receive the same quality of care as it did in the soil, or will it be subjected to mishandling along the way? How does the consumer know which of these methods they support when there are so many links in the chain before the product reaches them?
In her travels, Armbrecht seeks the answer to these questions. She describes the complicated process of getting plants from soil to shelves, from organic herb growers in the Pacific Northwest to facilities in the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe to the personalities behind Ayurvedic herbs in India. Armbrecht witnesses and describes first hand the often varied and complicated steps it takes for the plants to get from the soil to the shelves while looking for that integral spark of vitality and inter-connectedness—the viriditas—that so drew her to herbalism in the first place. She finds situations as diverse as the plant species themselves, especially in an industry that is constantly growing and adapting to changing times.
About the Reviewer
Angela Tanner has worked at the intersection of the built and natural worlds for over 15 years. With a background in both architecture and landscape architecture, she strives to create environments that are beautiful and functional for the people, plants, and wildlife that inhabit them. She is a Landscape Architect at Jenick Studio, a Cape Cod based landscape architecture and conservation planning firm specializing in the integration of ecology and modern design.
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