By on January 4, 2013 in Wilderness Medicine

Plants along the Path

If potshards and bones are the clues archeologists and paleontologists use to assemble the puzzle of time, then plants and seeds are the portholes to the past for ethnobotanists.  Plants may be our pathway to survival in global warming’s future too.

In an age where man’s relationship with technology is paramount, our relationship with plants is unfortunately overlooked.  There’s a good chance herbs and medicinal plants will keep you alive a lot longer than your computer, cell phone or myriad apps.

Ethnobotanists are in a race against time and technology to insure your chances of eating and prolonged health.  Of the world’s 400,000 plant species just 3,000 are edible and there is an estimated 80,000 yet to be discovered by western scientists.   Feverishly ethnobotanists travel to the world’s least disturbed places living among the natives hoping they will share healing plants that have allowed their communities to survive.

Globalization and environmental decline are rapidly wiping out these plants and their shamans and traditional healers.  Ethnobotanists will risk their own health to find the healers who are often leery to share their secret plants and heirloom seeds.  It took ethnobotanist Michael Balick two years to get permission from the King of Nett in Micronesia to grant his permission to settle there and catalog its plant life.  “I had a dream that a foreigner came in on the wings of a bird and landed on our island and taught our children that their inheritance should not be forgotten,” the king told Balick, according to the Wall St. Journal.

Where the Wild Plants Are

Without access to costly modern medicine, the so called third world is the first world when it comes to using plants beneficially.  From Micronesia to Malawi, traditional plant remedies continue to be used as elders try to convince today’s younger generation that soda, white rice, canned and fast foods are bad for them and they should stick to the taro, bananas and fresh fish at their doorstep.

Africa remains a hotbed for both disease and natural cures.  The bark of the tree Prunus Africana commonly known as red stinkwood is used in making treatments for prostate cancer.  Sutherlandia, a native plant of South Africa, is being increasingly recognized for its value to HIV/AIDS sufferers.  Other African plants, such as Devil’s Claw and African Geranium, are gaining popularity as herbal medicines, particularly in Europe.  The Chinese plant, Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood, has become an essential ingredient in a new generation of anti-malaria drugs.  The plant is being grown in East Africa to supply pharmaceutical manufacturers in Europe.

Ethiopia’s healers two thousand years ago figured out which plants were poisonous and which could cure common maladies.  They also discovered the ingredients within poisonous plants that had healing benefits.  Madagascar periwinkle is a small ornamental shrub grown in dry or low altitude areas as an ornamental in Africa.  The plant is considered poisonous especially for children, but it has global positive uses.  The natives of Jamaica are reported to use the leaves to treat diabetes.  The same use is made by tribes in the Philippines.  The natives substitute this plant for insulin.

Roots of Ethnobotany

In his white lab coat, Richard Evans Schultes would lecture his students at Harvard in almost a Victorian gentile way, a stark contrast to his fieldwork where he would don the dress of the locals to assimilate.  It began in the 1930s on the plains of Oklahoma documenting the use of peyote by plains Indians and would lead to the unexplored reaches of the upper Amazon where the locals were using curare to poison their darts.

Schultes is the unofficial father of modern ethnobotany and his fieldwork combined the discoveries of hallucinogenic plants with their curative powers.  His seminal 1977 book, “The Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred Healing and Hallucinogenic Power,” is a must read for anyone interested in the field.  His greatest contribution may have been outside ethnobotany, sounding the first wake up call of the destruction in the Amazon and its tribes.  Schulte first went into the Amazon in 1941 in search of disease resistant rubber to aid the war effort.  He later discovered how curare could be used as a muscle relaxant and it is used today in surgery.

Schultes’ disciples are varied ranging from beat poet Alan Ginsberg, to biologist E.O. Wilson.  Wade Davis a student of Schulte’s at Harvard went on to write the bestseller “The Serpent and the Rainbow,” about Haiti’s zombie culture and how plants were used in creating zombies.

Less celebrated, but no less influential in the field of ethnobotany is Colombia’s Hernando Garcia-Barriga who spent decades working with indigenous tribes throughout Colombia and collected over 30,000 species before he died in 2005.

Balick’s Bailiwick

In the Belizean jungle near the Guatemalan border lies the world’s first ethno-biomedical plant reserve.  It is a collaboration between Belize’s Association of Traditional Healers and the New York Botanical Garden.  Dr. Michael Balick’s four decades of field research led him to co-find the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation, which governs the preserve devoted to traditional healing, cultural preservation as well as medicinal plant conservation.  His co-founder Dr. Rosita Arvigo went to Belize and was schooled by Don Elijlo Panti, a Mayan healer who shared his recipes; Arvigo has produced a line of plant based rainforest remedies from them.

Balick has assumed Schulte’s mantle, but has taken ethnobotany into new directions, including conservation and education.  An expert in palms, he has been in the field for 40 years and has used today’s technology to record on video the lessons learned from the elders who have befriended him.  On Phonpei, an island in Micronesia, Balick spent a decade training the locals to inventory their plants and played a role in trying to reverse the young islanders disinterest in the healing power of plants and their nutrious benefits.

After his 57 expeditions he has collected thousands of samples that are cataloged in binders and in large sealed bottles that rest on shelves in storage closets at the New York Botanical Garden that has become the go-to place for aspiring ethnobotanists.

Back to the Future: Eat the Landscape

When he was a young boy, Enrique Salmon would trek through the mountains of Mexico’s Copper Canyon with his mother, an herbalist, and break off tiny leaves of fragrant plants such as Pennyroyal (Menta Poleo) and eat them as they walked.  His grandmother was a curandera, a healer.  Salmon grew up in the Rarámuri tribe and his boyhood experiences shaped his ethnobotanical career.

Salmon, a professor at California State East Bay today, witnessed first hand as a boy and later as a PhD ethnobotanist, how tribal cultures throughout North America’s Southwest have survived in arid deserts.  His research stretched back centuries tracing how both the pueblo cultures of the desert Southwest and the mountain tribes of Mexico altered their cultivation to adapt to less rain.

In today’s era of climate change, Salmon’s message is simple: take care of the land and plants so we can feed ourselves.  He predicts big agro will falter and we need to get serious about growing things in our own communities in his recently published book, “Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stewards of Food and Resilience.”

“American Indians know how to farm in arid regions; how to farm when you can’t count on constant rainfall; how to eat in these times of global climatic weirding,” says Salmon.  “It’s going to mean growing fewer foods reliant on water.  Some foods aren’t going to be available anymore; tomatoes are one.  It’s going to be harder and harder to find good peaches.”

In modern industrialized cultures, he says, many people are disconnected from not only the land but the steps involved in cultivating — and sometimes preparing — the strawberries, broccoli, and chicken that make their way to a family’s dining table.   Disconnecting from food’s origins contributes to declining stewardship of the environment.

“You talk to people today who have no idea what an avocado tree looks like.  The point is we have no relationship with food sources, with plants, with our identity.”

Let’s hope we rediscover the importance of plants and reconnect with our identity. After all, isn’t eating and leading healthy lifestyles more important than the latest iphone or mobile app?  Better yet let’s find ways to use both technology as well as plants in our daily lives.


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