Herbs root of local healthcare

Sara Foster examines a black lace elderberry shrub in her front yard near Wasson Academic Campus. She uses the fruit to make a syrup that she says boosts T-cell counts, white blood cell activity and is useful for colds and flu.       Photo by Steven Saint

Sara Foster examines a black lace elderberry shrub in her front yard near Wasson Academic Campus. She uses the fruit to make a syrup that she says boosts T-cell counts, white blood cell activity and is useful for colds and flu. Photo by Steven Saint

Trudy Thomas

In late September, Sara Foster and her sister, Anna Papini, were selling herbal tinctures at the Colorado Farm and Art market at Ivywild School. They produced the tinctures themselves using herbs grown in their home gardens. What they didn’t grow themselves had been purchased from other growers.

They began their journey into herbalism by launching their business and website, www.annasapothecary.com, about a year ago.

Sara and her sister represent a new and vital part of a movement to localize healthcare, a movement grounded in respect for native plants in a localized bioregion and dedicated to sharing knowledge neighbor to neighbor.

Their business model is based on selling their products at farmers markets.

“Rather than seeking out an herbalist and going there, we are taking it to them,” Foster says.

Go back to go forward

Scientists say the universe expands and contracts, a principle seen not only in the heavens but on the earth, in our literature, and in every aspect of our lives.

In business, this dualism is found in cycles of centralization/de-centralization and since the Industrial Revolution, America’s needs have been provided more and more by a centralized system. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicines we take are provided by corporations. We know little about where it comes from or what ingredients it contains.

As it becomes clear that the pendulum has swung as far as it can toward a centralized system, the call to de-centralize grows. The current economic system no longer meets the needs of the many, but the many meet the needs of the few. Millions have not only lost their jobs, but their quality of life.

So what began as a whisper for change, has grown to a shout: Localism, regional solutions, a strong local economy.

RELATED: ACA: Insurance not health

The Affordable Care Act offers too little too late for many in the local movement. Foster says she would rather take the penalty than be required to pay hundreds of dollars in premiums with a deductible in the thousands. And she’s seeing others excited about the prospect of local healthcare.

“It offers up an alternative to people who have been left cold by conventional medicine,” Foster says.

Localism says healthcare belongs in the hands of the people. It’s called by different names – the people’s pharmacy, community-supported plant-based medicine, re-localized healing, grassroots healthcare – whatever the term, it looks back to go forward.

Plant-based healthcare

Empowering the people in their regions, cities and neighborhoods to cultivate, prepare and even harvest medicinal plants in the wild educates the individual about healthy living and contributes to a vibrant local economy.

Above all, a local approach based on plant medicine ensures affordability – and access, to everyone. It creates jobs through everything associated with the cultivation, preparation and application of herbal medicines.

Besides the economic boon, advocates like anarchist Laurel Luddite say herbs have an energy of their own and are more powerful when not taken out of context.

“The spirit and environment of the plants we gather affect their healing properties and our relationship with those plants becomes important,” Luddite writes in her essay, This is Anarcho-herbalism.

Plants and people are part of the same bioregion. Our bodies adjust to the environment in which we live. Local plants are finely tuned for the same patch of earth. The best source for plant medicine, therefore, is our own backyards.

“For every big-name herb on the market cut from the rainforest or dug from the mountains, there is most likely a plant with a similar action growing in your watershed,” Luddite writes.

When we pay attention to nature, we also tend to become more in tune with our own bodies. We notice changes from the norm at an early stage and can act to correct imbalances before they become acute. We begin to trust nature and ourselves to work together toward healing.

Out of that relationship comes the responsibility to harvest the plants in a way that preserves and protects them. This is particularly important in light of the fads that have arisen around certain herbs. Goldenseal, for example, has practically been wiped out from over-harvesting.

Wild herbs are threatened by development or pollution and, therefore, need those of us who benefit from them to advocate for preservation.

Making it happen

It’s all good and fine, you say, to make a case that local healthcare is needed. But how does one bring this about? The good news is there are people who have been involved with local healthcare for years.

Clinical Herbalist Valerie Blankenship of Sage Woman Herbs and Clinic, for example, has been formulating and creating herbal medicines for more than 20 years. The herbs in her clinic are organically grown, locally produced and ethically wild-harvested.

She provides private herbal consultations and an herbal pharmacy where she prepares tinctures, capsules and creams.

In addition, she offers a 16-class herbal certification program during which students learn about the application of herbs to body systems and how to make their own preparations.

“I strive to give them the tools to strengthen and balance their own body,” Blankenship wrote in an email. “Once they have achieved this balance themselves, they can begin to assist and inspire others to do the same.”

One whole class is devoted to an herb walk where students work in the field.

Her website, www.sagewomanherbs.com, offers a wealth of information, including a forum for further discussion.

For a more culinary experience, self-taught botanist and wild food expert Chris Frederick is your man. Frederick has been teaching plant identification for nearly 20 years.

The author of Recipes from a Wild Plant Gourmet and A Complete Amateur Botanist’s Guide to Plant Identification, Frederick has led plant identification classes for Boy Scout groups, Air Force Academy combat survival instructors and at the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival.

He’s a founding member of the Pikes Peak Herb Association and leads an annual walk for the group, usually in June or August. Individuals interested in participating, “like” the Association’s Facebook page and leave a comment indicating interest in details regarding the next walk. The group can accommodate approximately 20 people.

As industrialized medicine continues to fall short, more people like Sara Foster and her sister Anna Papini are needed to help localize healthcare and grow the local economy.

That means, with mentoring by local experts like Blankenship and Frederick, making it happen one person at a time, neighbor to neighbor is a distinct possibility.

“Each one, teach one, for sure.” Foster says. “That’s what we want to do – empower people.”

 Trudy Thomas is the associate editor of AfJ.

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