Bioregional Herbalism: How Learning About Surrounding Plant Life Changes Your World
You would be surprised how many medicinal and herbal plants can be found in your backyard, and how they strengthen your connection to your home.
Some years back, I received acupuncture from a rather knowledgeable man in South Florida for some nerve pain that was following me around. He proceeded to treat me, an experience that was peaceful and relaxing. So much so, that he fell asleep while the needles sat in my body. Maybe the chi flow had an effect on the practitioner? I coughed to gently awake him from his corner of the room, and he came to and pulled the needles out.
I asked him if he used Chinese herbs for his practice, and he said yes. Excitingly, I asked him if he ever grew them, and, sadly, he said no. He had “never even seen what the plants looked like in their whole natural growing state.” The session ended and after a brief chat, we stepped outside of his home office and into his front yard. I immediately recognized a close plant friend, Sida acuta, commonly known as sida, growing wildly in his grass.
“Doc! You see this one? This plant is one of Florida’s great herbal antimicrobials, one we work with for infections as well as for complaints of allergies for its cooling and soothing effects. Pounds and pounds of this are sent to the Northeast for folks who are dealing with Lyme disease…”
His mind was blown. “Wow! In my own yard? A medicinal plant? I thought that was a weed!”
“And what is a weed, then?” I asked him. “A weed is just a plant whose name you don’t know yet.”
He smiled big and nodded approvingly of my main message: Learn your backyard plants.
There Is Strength in Knowing About Local Plants
It’s common for all people to learn and study herbs and medicines that come from the other side of the planet without first knowing what is actually growing at their own feet. But let’s not stop in the backyard. There is a special spot that only a few know about. It’s called a bioregion, which is defined “not by political boundaries, but by ecological systems,” and thank goodness for that. Plants, although some may suffer at the hands of politics, which is deeply unfortunate, don’t know who you voted for. And, they probably don’t care. They are here to live and thrive and maybe even teach us something.
So, why look at bioregional herbalism? There are a few considerations, one of which has been highlighted in our story above with the acupuncturist.
The first point is that there is a strength in knowing where your plants are coming from. You know what soil it grew in; you know if there is a reason not to harvest from that spot because of pollution; and, on a lighter note, you have the connection for this plant’s purpose before it even comes out of the ground. It is a spiritual work at the end of the day.
Another point is that the plants growing close to you are the ones you need. I can’t tell you how many times I have visited someone who was suffering from this or that, and—lo and behold—not even three feet from their back door was the herb that they specifically needed. I’m not even surprised by it anymore, as much as I respect it deeply. Let’s say that these plants have an affinity for their environment, obviously, and because you also live in their space, they can help you with afflictions that may arise in that same area.
The last point I will touch on is that just because the herb you’ve purchased from some far-off place has the “organic” sticker stamped on it, doesn't mean that it’s authentic. The adulteration of plants is a huge deal, and it happens daily across the world. There are of course reputable and valued companies who hold true to their practices with integrity, but nothing will ever beat you going out and harvesting your own plants, period.
Identifying Local Flora Can Be an Enriching Experience
So, is it “bad” to order a rare Pu’er from China or a really valuable and specific herb that only grows in the Amazon? Not inherently. Decisions like these have more to do with frequency and reliance than making the issue black and white, which erases the necessary nuance. Things have been traded across distances for a very, very long time, as evidenced by the recent uncovering of 3,000-year-old roasted quinoa seeds in Canada, far from its home.
On my walk outside, I notice a beautiful gumbo-limbo tree with its distinct bark peeling off. I get closer and see oozing resin from a recent branch trimming. I remembered that this tree is in the incense family, Burseraceae, which also belongs to copal. My eyes land on Spanish needle, Bidens alba, a particularly common daisy family member that can easily occupy large fields. Folks hate it so much because the seeds stick to their pants, but I see an opportunistic friend who has adapted to long-distance self-seeding. This herb, combined with the sida, creates an herbal antiviral blend and can be powerful.
And there, between my feet, and growing through a crack in the asphalt, I saw purslane. This plant is said to have been Gandhi’s favorite, rich in vitamins and used as a tonic to the stomach and urinary tract, amongst countless other things.
And maybe the wildest part? All those plants above were found in a parking lot, on the way to the park.
Oh, Florida, how I love you.