Living in Relationship with our Plant Allies
When it comes to herbalism, there are many different approaches, schools of thought, and materia medicas that vary from one tradition to the next. Every herbalist has a slightly different way of doing things that is dependent on their own experiences with plants, their teachers, what they have observed through working with clients, and the traditions that they study. But one thing that I think we all can agree on is the importance of allyship with medicinal herbs and the ethical requirements of walking the plant path.
Every healer who is actively practicing and working with other people requires a code of ethics. While this, again, will vary depending on your own personal ethics, many things will be the same. Do no harm, represent yourself and your knowledge with honesty, be kind, etc. Often our ethical tenants are focused on our relationship with our clients to help manage their expectations and explain what we can and cannot, or will not do – but what about our relationship with the plants? Have we taken the time to explore what it means to be an ethical Herbalist with both plants and people?
When Wildcrafting Becomes Extractive
As we begin our plant journey we are often so excited to try all of the different medicines out there. We want to get our hands on everything we can so that we can add more and more to our apothecary shelves. We step into the fields and forests, hearing the names of allies we have studied in books creep up into our awareness and exclaim with exuberant joy when we positively ID a medicinal plant. We pull our noses out of books and go to the plant world itself for knowledge. This is perhaps the greatest turning point in any herbalists path!
But without the knowledge of how to ethically wildcraft, we sometimes inflict more harm than good. There is a delicate balance between stepping outside and studying/gathering plants for healing vs. harvesting as much as we can to hoard away for future medicines. Or, harvesting plants in an exploitative/extractive way vs. in deep reverence and thanks for its medicine.
Some plants are more forgiving that others, but we still must be aware of how to gather just enough so that we have what we need while leaving enough plant material to support the other critters who use its medicine and to ensure future healthy growth. We also must be acutely aware of what plants are at risk or endangered and do our part to preserve plants native to our regions by spreading their seeds and harvesting responsibly.
RELATED READING: UNITED PLANT SAVERS SPECIES AT RISK LIST
This isn't a post on how to ethically wildcraft, though I will leave some resources at the end for you to peruse. Instead, I want to start a conversation on how we source our herbs, why we take what we take, and how we can be more ethical practitioners living in allyship with our plant friends.
Since we live in the age of Amazon and next day delivery, many of us go to our computers to source our herbs rather than our local lands. There is a place for this type of herb buying too, I'm not looking down on it. Many of us visit the big bulk herb suppliers and rely on them to source ethically before doing a ton of research on their practices and where their plants are coming from, how the people harvesting them are being paid, and how many fossil fuels are being expended through the supply chain. We think only of what we "need" and order those items vs. cultivating allyship with the plant itself.
Allyship. I have said that many times here so far – let's dive into the meaning of the word. If we break it down, we have ally- and -relationship. In our context, allyship refers to being in relationship or union with plants in a way that is mutually beneficial. We often refer to plants as allies on our health journeys, but do we truly act as their allies too?
Sometimes yes. But as a byproduct of the consumeristic, exploitative culture that we live in, we are often out of integrity with this goal. By “we” I am speaking generally for those who, consciously or unconsciously, are navigating the waves of injustice caused by colonization, capitalism, human and land violence echoing through history.
We often learn of a plant, hear how we can benefit from it, and order it online or purchase it from the grocery store in a pill form and begin taking it. Green washing and savvy marketing with alluring Instagram photos posted by your favorite influencer gets into our heads and has us typing in our credit card before we even think to ask ourselves, “Is this herbal product even right for me?”
We might have never encountered these plants before, we often don't even know what it looks like, where it grows, what its leaves feel like against our skin...we just take it. I emphasize take here as it is exactly what we do.
If I wanted to say that we "administer this medicine" I would, but let's be honest here – we so often just take it. The state of this world has taught us that we can have everything we want thanks to the internet and global supply chain that we have a tendency to forget the costs of our desire. And furthermore, some of us enact this sense of entitlement more than others – specifically white settlers who have benefited the most from exploitation of plants and people.
We may have read in a magazine article, "Meet Goldenseal, your defense against cold and flu season" (which isn’t even an accurate use for this herb), or started ordering adaptogens in our coffee with ingredients that are as far from local as they can get, or picked up a bundle of White Sage poached from lands sacred to indigenous lands that our country has stolen – we buy these items without even thinking about the costs. Though our intentions may be good, they don’t keep us from remaining complicit to exploitation of plants, people, and cultures.
Please pause and think about this for a moment.
How badly do you need the plant in question? Do you really just want it? Are you aware of the potential costs of you taking that plant? Have you explored the environmental impact around the herb in question (especially essential oils, exotic adaptogen powders, and herbs from outside the US)? Is this plant associated with a particular culture or sacred practice that you share no connection with? Have you taken the time to research other plants with similar actions that are native to where you currently live or native to your ancestral homelands? Can you cultivate the plant in question in your own garden or source it from a local herbalist who values ethical practices? Are you buying into the "this herb for that ailment" mentality without doing any research at all?
I am not writing this in an effort to call you out. On the contrary, I desperately seek to call you in. We need to do better. We need to be more aware. We need to care about the actions we take and the things that we participate in and not allow ourselves to be silently complicit as species are destroyed, cultures are appropriated, fuel emissions poison our air as they transport our goods, and plants are over-harvested from their ancestral homelands to the point of endangerment.
So what do we do now? Do we throw away all of the herbs sitting on our shelves that we purchased from a website and came perfectly dried, garbled, and ready to make medicines with? No! But we must take steps moving forward to ensure that our herbalism is ethical.
I urge you to do a few things after you read this:
Begin to shift your focus into bioregional herbalism. If, like me, you live in the Southeastern United States, I promise you that there are hundreds of incredible plants that you can learn about, ethically wildcraft, and form incredible mind, body, and spiritual relationships with. Many of these plants are very safe for use, can be cultivated in your garden, and grow in abundance. If you do not live here, seek out field guides, herbalists, and resources on medicinal plants native to your area. You'll be surprised at all of the incredible herbs growing in your backyard!
Next, learn about your ancestral herbal traditions. Ask your living elders how they treated common ailments in conjunction with the plants on their land; find out where your ancestors are from; research as much as you can about your heritage and study the plants that grew in those areas.
There is so much medicine in your lineage. As you begin to know your ancestors, and therefore get to know yourself, you’ll find that you no longer need to appropriate someone else’s culture and history, especially in the name of healing. Part of rewriting the narrative of holistic herbalism includes facilitating a deeper knowledge of yourself, your ancestral traditions, and your own cultural practices with plants.
We should also do our part to minimize emissions from transported goods. So much of the herb trade occurs on a global supply chain. If you are not able to source herbs from your local bioregion, either by wildcrafting/growing them yourself or purchasing from local growers, begin to think of non-local plants as bonuses on your plant path. Don’t rely on them as primary remedies to keep stocked in your apothecary. This goes for at-risk or endangered plants too! When in doubt, receive the medicine from these plants by sitting with them or, if possible, imbibing them through energetic or vibrational remedies such as flower essences.
Finally, get clear on how to ethically wildcraft, grow what you can, sow seeds of native plants in the forests and fields around your home, support herbalists who are growing and making medicines with sustainably sourced goods, question your ethics over and over again, work to de-colonize your herbalism.
Confront any feelings of entitlement you have towards our plant pals and begin to foster true connection and allyship. Sit with them, listen to their messages, taste their energetic qualities, have grounded experiences with these sacred healers and form relationships with them as you would with a friend or lover. Fight for the preservation of your plant friends and honor those that are sacred to particular cultures by leaving them out of your practice. At the very least, fight for the cause to honor those plants rather than overharvest them.
Decolonize Your Herbalism
Become aware of the plants and cultures that have been colonized and exploited and learn what you can do about it. For starters, if you are of European ancestry, stop burning White Sage and instead reach for plants like Juniper, Rosemary, Thyme, Garden Sage, etc.
We cannot be radical, self-reliant healers when we are engaging in exploitation of plants, people, and cultures. For centuries indigenous peoples, healers, midwives, witches, and herbalists have been "othered" and slaughtered for the practices that we freely study today without fear. We must not take this for granted.
In extremely recent history, indigenous folks and people of color have been barred from practicing their healing traditions, work with their medicine plants, and were/are subject to violence for simply existing. European settlers committed mass genocide and acts of terror against Indigenous peoples of the Americas and built the very foundation of this “land of the free” through the capture and enslavement of millions of people of color. Whether we like it or not, these settlers did their best to wipe out the cultures of others and created decades of ancestral trauma and systematic injustice that ripples through our society today.
And then these settlers stole the very traditions and medicines from those they colonized and wrote them down as their own. I won’t even dive into how biomedical doctors (ahem, old white dudes in the late 1800’s) attempted to erase herbalism from our modern medical model as an even more insidious way to create a deeper divide between folk healing and technocratic medicine.
This continues today and we cannot forget it. While many of us, the settler descendants of colonizers, like to think that we are not responsible for the heinous acts our ancestors committed, it is our duty to reduce the harm that they have caused by changing the systems that they created to disenfranchise others. We cannot remain silently complicit as our society continues to uphold its colonial roots and exploit the sacred practices of cultures we have destroyed.
True healing begins with the recognition of the ways in which we participate in violence against others, especially through silence or failure to truly think about the impact of our actions. We must educate ourselves. We must protect and honor these sacred plants that we hold so dear. We must become their allies.
The Code of an Ethical Herbalist
This is very much a living work and will be updated periodically as I continue to consider the intersectionality between human and plant rights. I hope you will adopt it into your practice and add to it as necessary! If you have any ideas on how to improve upon this list, please add your notes in the comments below.
As an Ethical Herbalist I:
- Promise to do no harm to both people and plants.
- Will never take more than I need or harvest an at-risk plant or stressed plant population when wildcrafting.
- Always approach plants with respect and gratitude, asking for permission to imbibe their medicine through one or any of my senses.
- Honor the spirits of the forests, fields, meadows, and other landscapes through offerings, prayer, songs, and scattering seeds.
- Recognize that plants are living beings too with spirits & life force who are entitled to life just as I am.
- Will do all that I can to practice regenerative land stewardship by reducing the environmental impact of myself + others and by supporting native plant populations.
- Remember those who walked this land long before me and acknowledge their medicine ways, traditions, and history without appropriating them into my practice.
- Understand that individual health is not separate from environmental health.
- As a true holistic herbalist, I recognize the importance of living in relationship with the land and do all I can to live my life through Earth-centered awareness.
What else can you do?
Support United Plant Savers is A non-profit dedicated to the preservation of native medicinal herbs through education and conservation. UPS has a list of “at-risk” and “to-watch” medicinal herbs which can help in making sustainable wildcrafting choices. I urge you to become familiar with this list and do your best to support UPS in their mission by furthering their work in your communities and through donations.
Connect with local herbalists. See if you have a local chapter of the American Herbalists Guild or find other herbalists in your area that you can connect with.
Practice land acknowledgment and learn about the history of the land you currently occupy.
Read this zine by Samantha Spikenard! And this article from Sophia Rose at La Abeja Herbs! And here’s another article from the Chestnut School! Here is a particularly poignant read about decolonizing your herbal practice by Sage L. Maurer. None of these links are sponsored, just important, good reads that you should check out. Tons of herbalists and activists are writing about this topic – I encourage you to research and read all that you can.
Together we can preserve our plant allies and ensure that they flourish for years to come.