Essays from
Giving Ground

THE "INVASIVE PLANT" SPIN

I am delighted that Fuller's Teasel is establishing itself nicely in my wild garden. I deliberately bought seeds from Richter's Nursery in Goodwood, Ontario, Canada, three years ago, and set about nurturing them. Teasel is a biennial, with the first year roots used for a tincture to help treat people with Lyme disease. And so, we need always enough seeds from the second-year seed-heads to have first year root medicine, and second year plants to produce the new seed. This involves some planning ahead, but not a lot. Thankfully, teasel is pretty prolific, or, as the military-industrial-complex vocabulary would have it, "invasive."

One of the many enchanting characteristics of "invasives" is that they usually don't need a lot of coddling, if they are planted in a latitude, altitude, soil type, and shade or sun environment that they like. If they aren't planted in a place to their liking, they'll move over! They don't need synthetic fertilizers or irrigation water. In this time of weather gone awry all over the planet, and powerful, challenging climate forces we cannot control, these plants do quiet, potent work. Their strong roots "mine" up soil nutrients, and as the plants die back in autumn, these nutrients are deposited at and near the soil surface for other plants to use in future. Too, the "invasives" are persistent, natural, effective erosion control.

Many of these maligned plants gravitate toward disturbed and contaminated soils, where they break down or stabilize and isolate toxic contaminants such as lead, copper, arsenic, manganese, cadmium. In such bio-dynamic ways, they clean and rejuvenate soil. They are medicine for the soil.

And now we come to medicine for the people.

All of these persecuted plants have enormous storehouses of vitamins, minerals, trace elements, anti-oxidants. Stinging nettle may have, along with wild rice, the highest protein content of any wild plant in this hemisphere. (And nettle doesn't sting after one dries it for tea, or for keeping over winter, or cooks it into a soup or lasagna; see my recipe page).  Hippocrates, the "Father of Medicine," said, "Let food be your medicine and let medicine be your food." He lived to age ninety, in a time, before Christ, when most people didn't.

Here is a paragraph I want to lift right out of Timothy Lee Scott's, "Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives", Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont, 2010, page 137: "Unlike the unilateral approach of pharmaceutical antibiotics, which afford ample opportunity for bacteria to build resistance, the comprehensive wisdom of nature found in whole plant medicines renders micro-organism resistance impossible. The multifaceted chemistry inherent in plants is too complex for bacteria to develop immunity The same bacteria that find it easy to adapt to the single chemical dynamic within conventional antibiotics are impotent against the intricate chemical matrices of whole plant medicine."

Therein lies the mystery and the very core of why whole- plant medicine works, as opposed to supplements and pills, in which one or two constituents are isolated, often synthetically made, and bottled. A bacteria or virus or fungal entity can mutate easily to "jump" one or two hurdles. That's not much of a lottery. Pathogens cannot mutate intricately enough to "jump" the many, many interconnected and complex structures within a whole plant.

Isn't it very interesting, and, I plead, along with Timothy Lee Scott, Stephen Harrod Buhner, David Hoffmann and many other world class herbalists, that it is not coincidental that the so-called invasive plants slip into a geographical region at just the time when the people there are about to face a plague: West Nile virus, Lyme disease, Ebola virus, breast cancers, burgeoning numbers of asthma sufferers, inflammatory challenges of all kinds including Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, arthritis...

As food, the oppressed and unpopular Canada and Bull thistles make a nutritious and tasty salad or soup ingredient. In the spring, one dons gloves for the harvesting  (not along roadsides where they are busy breaking down toxins from automobile exhaust, but in fields, in gardens.. .) When you have cut a nice bunch of the main stems, use a carrot-peeler, or that same action with a pen-knife, to scrape away the outer, thistle-y texture; the inner stems, raw in salads or cooked in a soup, taste like asparagus, or like the stems of artichokes. As medicine, they are a specific for "mining" toxins from our livers, lowering blood pressure, treating jaundice, reducing swellings, promoting healing. They are hemostatic (stop bleeding), anti-microbial. The prolific flowers are also excellent sources of pollen and nectar for a wide variety of bees and other insects.

Goldenrod, so vilified as an allergen: Susun Weed, life-long herbalist, points out that goldenrod is rarely, if ever, the allergen it is thought to be. Its magnificent yellow plumes appear at the same time as ragweed flowers with ragweed's nondescript profile, and everyone wheezing with sinus discomfort looks around and sees, and accuses, goldenrod. But goldenrod pollen is sticky, and needs insect or other animal pollinators to do its work of cross-pollinating, whereas ragweed's pollen is not sticky and counts on the wind to disperse its pollen. Is it a coincidence, too, that goldenrod is more and more prolific when allergies and asthma are in the forefront of chronic inflammatory challenges among many populations? Indeed, it is a very powerful and benign anti-inflammatory medicine for people, most often specific for the respiratory, and urinary, systems.

Dandelion:  Pharmaceutical diuretics flush needed potassium out of our bodies. Many people on pharma diuretics have to take potassium supplements. Dandelion leaf, a very efficient diuretic, brings potassium, among many other nutrients, into our bodies!  Dandelion roots are an herbal specific for liver nourishment and detoxification. Our livers are our foot-lockers, storing many of the chemical pollutants we breathe in or ingest. The liver tries to isolate those compounds it can't easily break down, shielding other parts of the body from toxic build-up of these molecules. But the liver, like a foot-locker, can't expand indefinitely, to store an infinite amount of "junk."

The word "invasive" is a word of warfare, of military tactics and counter-tactics. It has "spin," all right, just as "war on terror", "evil-doers" ( as a class of people) are words and phrases guaranteed to bring fear and loathing to any discussion. Even the much over-used and raw phrase, "blown away": how did it graduate from a term of horror, describing "bodies reduced to wet particles after a bomb has exploded," to mean "I was surprised," or "I was awed"? Has just plain over-use cleaned it up for parlor conversation? Let's not let the term "plant invasives" make us loathe and persecute plants, which may be among our last strategies for disease control. If we must use the term, "blown away," let's make a paradigm shift. Let's imagine, instead, dandelion seed-fluffs wafting in a zephyr breeze, ready to make new plants to help us heal. I think there's enough room on the earth for us all to share space.

Copyright 2014 by Pam Thompson

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