What is Sustainable Herbalism?

Lady's mantle and more

Herbs growing in a garden.

Sustainability is becoming more and more important as our economy continues to struggle and as people realize how fragile our planet is. As an herbalist and plant lover (and child of the 60s) I have always thought in terms of sustainability for my life and my work, and so, of course, it is something that is inextricably tied in with my practice of herbalism and of foraging and wild-crafting. I thought it would be useful to write something about sustainable herbalism and what it is, at least from my point of view.

In wanting to write about this topic I spent time on the Web looking to see what is out there on the subject, specifically “sustainable herbalism”. Along with various businesses that include sustainability as part of their practices or include the word “sustainable” for some of their products, there were some interesting blog posts and articles. They helped to expand what I had been thinking about sustainability to a broader level, beyond the more local level I usually think of.

Definition of Sustainability

Wikipedia begins the entry on sustainability with this: “In ecologysustainability is the capacity to endure; it is how biological systems remain diverse and productive indefinitely.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability) And the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines sustainability as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sustainable

This is how i think of sustainable herbalism: using locally growing and grown plants whenever possible for healthcare and other needs in ways that are harmonious with the environment, with the needs of a community, with one’s budget. It is wild-crafting responsibly and using wild plants when feasible. It is about growing what I can grow as much as possible, and when I can’t, to buy from people who grow organically and responsibly and/or ethically wildcraft, locally when possible, as much as I can. It is working with plants in ways that make sure the plants and the medicine will still be there next year, in five years, in 10 years, for the next generation, the next seven generations to come, and beyond.

Sustainably Global

As I was looking at articles and blogs I realized also that it is about approaching the growing and using of plants and their medicines with responsibility and care around the world as well.

I realized that sustainable herbalism is also more global and universal, encompassing the way plants are grown, harvested, processed, and transported around the world. That this happens in ways that maintain the integrity of the plants and where they are grown, the environment, and that don’t use excessive amounts of resources for growing, handling, and transporting, especially non-renewable resources such as petroleum or plastics.

Affordability

One of the most important parts of what I think of as sustainable herbalism is affordability. It is crucial that if herbal medicine is going to be able to be used and incorporated into one’s healthcare long-term that it be affordable and available on an on-going basis. It doesn’t make sense to use rare, exotic herbs that are very expensive to grow or find, ship, and buy (unless they are what you really need and you can’t find a substitute). That is not a sustainable practice for a person or family of ordinary financial means. Being able to use a medicine as long as needed without worrying about the cost is hugely important and necessarily a part of sustainability.

DIY

And so to one other aspect of sustainability, though not an absolute requirement. I think it is much more sustainable to be able to make you own medicines—tinctures, vinegars, infused oils, salves, capsules, etc.—if you have the knowledge, skill, and inclination to do so. It can make working with an herb affordable where buying the ready-made products might be vastly more expensive. Even being able to make a tea is a simple form of medicine-making that just about anyone can do.

Resources

I also found some resources. One of the resources I found was the Sustainable Herbs Project, started by Ann Armbrecht, one of the film-makers for Numen: The Healing Power of Plants. Armbrecht is making a documentary about the growers and producers of herbs around the world, and the project is about “following medicinal plants through the supply chain of the botanical industry.” It is about knowing who is growing or collecting the herbs, how they are processed and distributed, so that those who are using the herbs know how they been treated from harvest to medicine–making. They can see whether the plants were grown without chemicals, irradiated, stored correctly or not, and more. It is a way to know and support the small herb producers around the world, as well as make sure that the herbs you buy are good quality for good medicine. sustainable herbs project.

Here is a good blog post by herbalist Juliet Blankespoor on wild-crafting which lays out some good guidelines for foraging and wild-crafting herbs to use sustainably.

What are your thoughts and opinions on sustainability and sustainable herbalism? What do you do to work with herbs sustainably? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.