Monday, March 28, 2011

Your Backyard is a Scary Place Just Waiting to Kill You!

There's an article in yesterday's Globe and Mail about backyard herbalism. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed for it!)

I think the journalist did a good job of presenting viewpoints from many different perspectives and highlighting the concerns as well as benefits. But I find some of the arguments- especially from the ethnobotanist- border on fear mongering.

One of the things I repeatedly emphasised in my interview, which didn't get included in the article, was the importance of thoroughly educating oneself and doing your research if you plan on really delving into plant based medicine. My own studies include a course with a botanist who taught her students how to identify edible, wild food. I spent a year apprenticing with a Registered Herbalist. I continue to educate myself by studying with herbalists online. I read a ton, from many different sources, including scientific and botanical literature. And then I read some more. And I use plants and work with them regularly, making observations and gaining experience. There is no way I'm going to mistakenly identify Foxglove and accidentally ingest it. Nor would I correctly identify it and use it medicinally, because I know it's too strong a plant for me to use safely with the current knowledge I have.

I'm also really cautious about the environments I wildcraft and forage in and cultivate my own plants as much as possible. I'm fanatical about ethical foraging practices. I have a better understanding of what's in or on the plants I harvest and how they are sourced, than any commercial preparation I might buy.

Basically, I use good research, common sense and the knowledge of experienced elders to ensure I am always making safe and healthy choices for myself and others.

The thing with backyard herbalists is that we mostly use plants that are essentially food. Dandelion, burdock, mallow, plantain, nettle, violet leaves..guess what? They're all food. We use herbs and spices you find in the kitchen cupboard like sage, thyme, ginger, cinnamon, pepper....

If you've ever had a cup of chamomile tea to calm jangled nerves, or peppermint to soothe an upset tummy, you're using plants as medicine.

See, you don't even need a fancy education or hours of study to engage in very simple, yet very profound herbalism.

Sure there are risks involved. Take oxalic acid for example. Ingesting it depletes the body of important minerals like calcium and can lead to kidney stones. You know what plant has oxalic acid in it? Spinach.

I guess what I'm getting at, is that a lot of the fear that "backyard herbalists with minimal training" are running around doing harm to themselves and others is largely unfounded.

Nor are we all Big Pharma haters. As mentioned in the article, I am trying to reduce my dependence on pharmaceuticals, not trying to eliminate them entirely. I believe that many pharmaceuticals have an important and necessary role in health care. For instance, I really don't want to have to go without a tetanus vaccination. And I always keep some acetaminophen and/or aspirin on hand for acute or emergency situations. Just used some yesterday in fact.

But like Mr. Patton said at the beginning of the article, "People needn’t rely on pharmaceutical drugs to treat every minor ill." And the plant world is not a big, scary and dangerous place waiting to kill you at the first misstep. All that kind of thinking does, is further alienate people from the natural world.

Using reliable information from reputable sources and good old fashioned common sense will keep you safe and healthy! (It's good advice in herbalism and good advice for life in general.) If you do any less, maybe you'll be eligible for a Darwin Award. :)

For a really great perspective on wild foods and poisonous plants check out this excellent article by Samuel Thayer.


Anonymous said...

My great uncle was killed by his backyard.
He lived on the side of a hill, and there was a mudslide, it tsunamied into his living room and buried him up to his neck.
He would have survived but the mud had carried in a castor bean plant that had been growing further up the hillside.
Its seed fell into his mouth, and apparently he couldn't help but swallow some.
When help finally arrived, rescuers found my great uncle half-unconscious.
One of the rescuers styled herself an amateur herbalist, and recognized the castor bean plant as a source of deadly poison, so while the rest of the rescuers were digging to free him, she tried to give him a castor bean poisoning antidote made up of other plants that the mudslide had also carried into the living room.
Unfortunately she had no idea what she was doing and ended up poisoning him even more with some herbal concoction.
Amazingly he survived and lived a long life finally succumbing to a heart attack while mowing his lawn. It is very difficult pushing a mower up a hill.

JG said...

Love the oxalic acid example.

Anon's family experience sounds tragic and I do feel bad for laughing so hard while reading it.

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