There’s nothing doing on the rain soaked allotment at the moment but, or rather so, The Potwell Inn kitchen is a fragrant place since I started a few small scale experiments on medicinal herbal extractions. My recently acquired teetotal credentials are getting a bit dented by the amount of time I spend in the supermarket searching for extra strong vodka, but it seems easier to get hold of pure alcohol for tinctures in America than it is here, and many of the reference books I’m using come from the US. I content myself with what the experts rather dismissively call ‘the folk method’.
However, buying the ingredients is a whole lot more complicated than clicking on websites. I’ve discovered that very few companies who sell herbal preparations actually have sustainable re-planting schemes, and it’s difficult to find out who does. The THR certification scheme does no more that tell us that the herb in question has a history of use in the EU. Plantlife have some interesting/scary stuff on their website about the international trade in plant material and its impact on whole species. Inappropriate harvesting of the whole plant instead of just the leaves or berries, and overharvesting in general have brought some species to endangered status. Arnica montana, American ginseng bearberry and liquorice are all threatened. Meanwhile, a dispiriting search around the shelves of Holland and Barrett and Boots suggests that the 25% of the UK population which is said to use herbal medicine regularly may be an underestimate. As David Hoffmann rather acidly suggests, the market is nothing more than a means of delivery of green sounding benefits, far from the holistic approach he teaches. Big business is endlessly adaptable to the latest fashion, and it’s always sensible to read the label carefully. I’ve counted any number of versions that seem cheaper until you notice you need to take four a day instead of the one a day quoted by more expensive products. The principle of extraction here is from your pocket rather than the generosity of the earth.
As for me, my interest in the whole subject is inspired by my interest in wildlife and plants and not at all by any repressed desire to live forever. I read recently about foragers being caught with 45Kg of fungi in one haul, and it would be unsurprising if the same extractive economy didn’t apply to wild flowers and plants here. My single exception perhaps would be couch grass – Elymus repens – for which our allotment site could sign up an agreement any day! In the summer I harvested some Mugwort, some Ribwort Plantain and a little bit of Pellitory of the Wall, which are all dried and sitting in a cupboard. But I didn’t touch the drift of Betony or the large clump of Dodder and it didn’t even occur to me to harvest any of the Eyebrights. We make 5 litres of Elderflower cordial for our own use every year and I hardly think that will damage the species.
So what happens when I want to buy some herbs because I’m not prepared to deplete the local wild plants? Isn’t it possible that I’m simply evading my responsibilities by passing them on to some less scrupulous forager? The answer is we don’t really know and so we’re left in the gulf between scientific medicine which is not nearly as safe as it would like to pretend, dangerous misidentifications (have you tried this lovely soup I made from some white mushrooms I found in a wood?) and potentially damaging thoughtless harvesting. Right outside the window as, I write this, is a clump of Burdock from which I could easily harvest roots, but I don’t because it’s not just about rarity; many plants are specific food plants for insects, moths and butterflies. pellitory of the wall is much liked by the Red Admiral, and the rarity might not inhere in the plant, but the species it feeds, and if I overharvested the burdock it would deprive the local children of their endless fun throwing the burrs at their friends. We’re all a part of the great scheme of things.
In the seventies one of my prized possessions was a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue on the cover of which (against one of the first pictures of the earth taken from space), were the words
“we can’t put it together, it is together”.
No, we can’t put it together but we can certainly rip it apart – and we’re doing it every minute of every day. I realized while I was reading that I’ve never positively identified vervain, another valuable medicinal herb. That doesn’t mean to say it’s rare, it’s far more likely that I haven’t noticed it because (thankfully) it doesn’t shout out like a dahlia on steroids. Now I know that I don’t know it I’ll keep an eye open – it’s an interesting variant of the tree falling in a deserted forest koan. Without an observer does any plant exist meaningfully within our culture? But when I find it – it’s fairly common according to the local floras – I’ll bow and say hello, take a photo and then ponder whether I have the moral right to gather any. I think that if I could add a day’s symptomatic ease to my life at the expense of a threatened plant, I’d put up with the symptom and never tell a soul where I found it.
The answer, or at least a part of it, would seem to be on the allotment after all. Some, but by no means all of these plants could be grown on a small plot. Many more could be grown by farmers taking advantage of a niche market which could follow from our re-evaluation of the place of meat and dairy in our national diet. Some candidates – like liquorice – are just waiting to be taken up because the cannabis bubble is bound to burst sooner or later. But sustainability needs deep and careful thought, and and a good deal of expertise, alongside the willingness not to exploit a resource – and that’s something that market economics finds it almost impossible to do.