Turn the spotlights off delicate woodland medicinals. Now, please.

It’s November and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees. All of nature is saying it’s time to let go of what you’ve been holding on to. So, I am working on letting go of my worries. At least for now.

I’ve been worried a lot lately. Worried about the earth. Not the earth in the great, big, wide, global sense, but earth in the heart-achingly local sense; as in the woods and fields right here in Maine where I live. This particular bioregion – my little corner of the world.

It’s the woods, and in particular, the delicate woodland plants that inhabit our woods, that I’m particularly concerned about. They are under enormous pressure. Their habitats are shrinking daily. We’ve got logging operations here in Central and Northern Maine like you wouldn’t believe. If you stand on Route 201 or any other major thoroughfare in Maine for just one hour, you’ll see truck after over-laden truck filled with spruce, fir, pine and birch logs cut from our forests rolling by in a never-ending stream.

Our woodland ecosystems are disappearing at an alarming rate. As the dead bodies of trees are dragged, one by one out of our forests, they are raking up precious soil and uprooting delicate woodland plants and scraping them all indiscriminately out of the forest floor. We’re destroying amazingly fragile ecosystems in a few hours that took eons to create. This is happening every day and has been going on for many, many years.

As if that wasn’t threat enough, we’ve now got overly enthusiastic aspiring herbalists all over the place, eager to show off what they know about little known plants, writing and talking up the delicate woodland medicinals in our forests as if they were in a candy shop raving about tootsie rolls and lollipops. No wonder I’m worried!

Oh, I know, if you’ve just arrived here from somewhere like Kansas or New Mexico, it looks like we have plenty of trees. Trees are everywhere. But if you’ve been here for thirty five years, or a life-time, and have been aware of the constant procession of those logging trucks rolling through at a steady clip for the entire time, you’d be as convinced as I am that there is a silent disaster going on all around us.

Ever hear of the beauty strip? That’s a 20 foot wide swath of trees left along the roadside so that you, the uninitiated, will think those trees go on forever. They don’t. In fact, in many places now, they only go on for about as far as your eyes can see, literally.

What trees we do have here in Maine are young. Many are planted in monocultures, single species tree plantations managed by the paper companies. Most, if not all, of our old growth forests are long gone. And with them the mycorrhizal networks that extended beneath tree and woodland plant roots for hundreds if not thousands of acres, creating a network of nourishment upon which all life depends and sustaining the rich diversity and ecological balance that is also, unfortunately, long gone.

As a practicing Community Herbalist who’s been serving my rural Maine neighbors for the past thirty plus years, I’ve done my fair share of wildgathering all around this area. But I’m proud to say that you would never know I’ve even been here to take a look around. The wild stands I’ve been quietly managing for decades have grown and spread and flourished. But then, the plants that I’ve been gathering have been the wild plants of the open fields, mountain meadows and woods edges. Abundant plants like red clover blossoms and yarrow, St. John’s wort, red raspberry, self heal and plantain, dandelion and yellow dock. Potent healers, all.

Sure, there are lots of medicinal plants in the woodlands here. In our cedar grove there are expanding stands of Smilacina racemesa, False Solomon’s seal, and Veronica, a common creeping woodland medicinal that is dear to my heart, also referred to as Speedwell. Along the stream we find bunches of Gaultheria procumbens, known as wintergreen or tea berry, and Coptis trifolia, commonly called goldthread or canker plant.

And we’ve planted Cimicifuga racemosa, black cohosh; Panax quinquefolius, American ginseng; Hydrastis Canadensis, goldenseal and Sanguinaria canadensis or bloodroot here.

But these wondrous woodland plants are the plants I tend to sit and learn from, meditate with, employ as teaching tools and use exceedingly sparingly, if ever. In my humble opinion, this is the only ethical and respectful course of action when it comes to our woodland medicinals. I think the same kind of “hands off” policy is called for regarding teaching and writing about these plants as well. Turn off the spotlights, please!

It has been my strict policy over the years to avoid bringing undue attention to our precious woodland medicinals, other than to point them out on an herb walk, discuss their medicinal benefits as well as the challenges they face for survival, and suggest other plants that may have similar properties and actions.

Why write exciting and enticing essays about the stunning medicinal uses of delicate woodland plants that are not commercially grown and available? Plants that we desperately need to survive and do not want to see disappear? Why focus attention on these forest medicines when there are so many others to write and talk about? And why, in the name of the blessed earth, lead the ever-growing numbers of people who are interested in herbs to such delicate, fragile ecosystems and plants? It just doesn’t make sense. In fact, doing so is just how the procession begins; it ends with the same sad ending we’ve seen over and over again; the decline of one precious, irreplaceable plant after the other.

Just think about what happened to American ginseng, once abundant, plentiful and easily found in forests throughout the Northeast down into Appalachia. Then the word got out. Try to find a wild ginseng root now…it’s a very hard thing to do. The ginseng we have growing in our woods has been deliberately planted there and is being carefully protected. Once in a while, I dig a root or two for medicine. The rest remain to nourish the forest floor, the other plants nearby and to spread eventually, so that at least our little woodland areas will once again be plentiful in this amazing healing plant. But what about all the other plants and forest fungi?

Suddenly there’s a flurry of interest in medicinal mushrooms. People are out in the woods hunting for Chaga and Ganodermas, birch Polypores and Reishi, and they are finding them. And gleefully harvesting all that they find. But where will the spores come for next years fruiting bodies if we take all we find this year?

Here’s the thing: Delicate woodland plants like Coptis trifolia and fungi like Piptoporus betulinus (birch polypores) may not currently be listed on Maine’s endangered or threatened lists, but why wait for that to happen? We already know that the places where these abundant woodland medicinals grow are shrinking daily. If there are 5 polypores going up a birch trunk, will you need all five or will just one suffice? If you find a beautiful, lush, abundant stand of Coptis in the woods somewhere, ask yourself, do I really need to dig any of it up? Maybe you could use a bit of oak bark or witch hazel instead.

Wouldn’t it be better to just sit, learn from and admire the plant, absorb the beauty and the medicine energetically? To go home knowing you defended the right of this sweet woodland medicine to continue to thrive, completely undisturbed? Now that is good medicine!

If you’re an herbalist or wildgatherer in the state of Maine you have a responsibility to our Maine ecosystems. This is true wherever you are. You have a sacred trust to protect our lands and the life forms that inhabit it. Please realize the power you hold in your hand, in your pen, in your voice. Please don’t misuse it, thinking these plants are abundant because you’ve happened upon a particularly lush growth. Please don’t be fooled into thinking these plants are not threatened or endangered because they are not listed on official lists. ALL our woodland medicinals are threatened here in Maine. All of them, bar none.

Soon a soft protective layer of snow will fall and the woodland plants will be safely tucked beneath it for the winter months. I’ll rest a little easier then. And my worries for the earth will perhaps become dormant too, like the plant roots, only to rise up with fresh new growth again next spring when life begins to stir anew. For some worries can be appreciated as valuable messages from the wild heart of the earth herself. They are calls to action and must be revisited time and time again.

About gailfaithedwards

Gail Faith Edwards is an internationally recognized Community Herbalist with over thirty years experience. She is the author of a number of books about herbs and has taught in India, Italy, Poland and Russia, at the Yale School of Nursing, the University of Maine and the College of the Atlantic, among others. She is the founder of Blessed Maine Herb Farm and Director of the Blessed Maine Herb Farm School of Herbal Medicine. She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of four grandsons. Gail leads sacred journeys and ancestral pilgrimages to Southern Italia twice a year.
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13 Responses to Turn the spotlights off delicate woodland medicinals. Now, please.

  1. AarTiana says:

    Thank you for your perspective on this topic! In fact, I think it is best for Herbalists to begin learning about the more-than-plentiful herbs first like Dandelion, Plantain, Chickweed, Red Clover, Self-Heal, Goldenrod, Yellow Dock, and many others. Often combining some of these together can work as well as one of the more rare plants found in the woods – and I agree that we really need to leave many of those alone as much as we possibly can. Let’s attempt to base our practices and teachings first on the plentiful!

  2. Diana Boyd says:

    Thank you for the alert, we as a people need to conserve and propagate, what we need ,
    and the earth needs, to survive. I have been propagating our native woodland plants for
    years, but not to sell at my native plant nursery, Keystone Flora, but to put back into our woodlands! Turn the spotlight off!

  3. Kieran LiuWang says:

    Thank you for the gentleness you are inspiring in others. Also thank you for offering alternatives. I have heard of the 1/3 harvesting ethic. This would be a maximum in my opinion and even so one should stray from harvesting this much and do not know if that includes the root system. Thank you for communing with the plant spirit though as it is important I believe. I probably would fall into that category of herbalists but know what erosion and the presence of human life can cause to an otherwise undisturbed part of the woods/nature as I’ve lived in NM where the precious land is only still beginning to heal itself after all the nonconsiderate logging has happened. On Woods, I’ve been a tree sitter and eco activist and know how precious our woods can be. Please try to recycle everything and buy sustainable products. Thank you.

    • Liu, thanks for your comment. I agree that the 1/3 suggestion is a maximum and is only applicable when gathering certain abundant annual plants – it is much too high of a ratio when we are talking about digging roots…that would be WAY TOO MANY roots to take away from any one place. Keep up the good work!

  4. Linda Conroy says:

    Hi Gail,
    Thanks for this. I have been teaching a program titled choosing herbal remedies for sustainability for quite a few years now. Over the years it has been ironic to me that herbalists have been the most resistent to the information. When I teach for sustainability events, permacultarists etc., seem to understand the concern and since some of the permaculture principles talk about nature replicating herself…it makes sense to them and to me that there is more than one plant and more than one consideration when choosing a plant. I appreciate your words and insights. Thanks Linda

  5. Robert Hackett(Irma`s husband) says:

    You bring up very good points Gail and some of the things Irma has communicated to me when we go out harvesting.
    One of the things she is careful to do is to harvest only from areas that are about to be cut back(such as public roadsides) or similarly tampered with such as an area which is slated to be cleared for construction.We first will do a meditation to help connect with both the plant and the earth.Sometimes connecting with the spirit of the plant is all that you need.If we are told it is alright to harvest there we take no more than 1/3 of what is available and we always leave an offering in thanks for what we have been blessed with.Part of the 1/3 we harvest will go toward replanting in either our garden if the plant is a perennial or collecting the seeds for planting next spring.We note the conditions under which these plants flourish and if we cant duplicate them at home then either the roots or seeds are replanted in similar conditions locally in protected woodlands.
    The question to me really is whether we are looking for the best medicine possible for humans,the plant and animal worlds and the earth in general or are we going to be part of the continued thoughtless exploitation of natural resources for personal gain.
    Being a good steward means putting some thought into how you can give back as well as take.
    Good medicine always comes around to form a circle,intelligent stewardship of resources stands at the center of that circle and helps bring balance for us all.

    • I agree, Robert, that the greater issue is something like what constitutes good medicine and how do we go about assuring that exists for future generations.

      When gathering abundantly growing annual plants, the 1/3 rule can be a good general guideline, depending on where you are and what plants you are gathering. Taking 1/3 of any stand of perennial roots would be way out of line, no matter how much thanks you give.

      There are many variables to the equation which is why an acutely developed sense of ethics regarding our wildgathering practices is of utmost importance.

  6. phytosleuth says:

    Thanks, Gail. I posted to FB. You are right on. Good work.

  7. Tzila says:

    Gail…thank you SO much for these wise and Earth-loving words. If people heeded this advice, both in small, local ways and in a world-wide visionary way, the Earth could begin to heal and recover from all our horrible over- and mis-use of it. It begins at hOMe…right where we each live.

    I am trying to nurture the small eco-systems right here where I live (N Texas)… against the ever-present threat of men and their joy at using big machines to do small tasks. I have watched in the last 6 months, swaths of earth bulldozed for new “easier” paths to the river (causing much erosion) and huge tracts cleared to drill for gas and oil. Where many wildflowers & wild plants (some unusual ones) grew, there is now bare Earth. It breaks my heart. And the worst is yet to come…with the rains.

    It has been my opinion since the 70s when it really got going, that “eco-tourism” is an oxymoron, especially in the way that it was gone about. The Galapagos is an example of what havoc that wrecks. The Ghost Bear island in Alaska is another example. Some places and things just need to be left alone, period….even from those of us who appreciate and know how to respect them. We are capable of doing such harm, so quickly, which could take the Earth too many years to recover from.

    Those of us who know this must protect what we can how we can. Gone are the days of feeling that wilderness (even the wilderness of our own yards) is vast and can’t be harmed by us humans.

    Thanks again for this post!


    • I appreciate your response here Z and understand your feelings. Yes, we can do much harm, even those of us who love the earth, but have not matured our understanding yet of just how easily the natural balance can be upset.

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