Are Herbs Weeds or Treasures?
Danny T. Siegenthaler
My dictionary defines the word Weed as: “a plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one growing where it is not wanted, as in a garden.” Herbs or medicinal plants are often considered weeds - usually because they grow in undesirable places.
Many herbs have been introduced into Australia and because they are not native plants, they have often few competitors for resources such as water, soil nutrients and light and have few predators. Subsequently, these plants can grow and spread unchecked, endangering native vegetation and even various animal species such as birds and insects.
Weeds certainly can be a real threat to native flora, fauna, rain forests and even aquatic ecosystems. Recalcitrant herbs are targeted by the authorities for eradication or sprayed on an ongoing basis, in an attempt to control their spread and protect sensitive ecosystems.
Weeds or Treasures...
You don’t need to go to exotic places like the rain forests to find medicinal plants, they usually grow right at your feed; on footpaths, roadsides, garbage dumps, even in your garden.
Given that most medicinal plants are weeds and because weeds grow as prolifically as they do, they are often easy to cultivate – you will actually have more of a problem keeping them in a designated area, rather than a problem growing them.
Wildcrafted herbs are herbs gathered from the wild. The advantage of wildcrafted herbs is that these generally are very healthy and full of the desired medicinal properties. Wildcrafted herbs are usually native to an area and thus are not weeds. They often occur in clusters and grow in ‘ideal’ conditions under which they can attain their full medicinal potential.
A problem with wildcrafting medicinal plants occurs where there is little or no control over the amount that can be harvested at any one time or by any one person, at least this is the case in Australia. This can decimate a local population of wild medicinal plants. Taking of any vegetation is illegal without authorisation in Australian National Parks and protected areas for this reason. Some medicinal plants are actually becoming rare and endangered and the harvesting of these species should at the very least be regulated. Better still, organic farming of such herbs should be encouraged and promoted. This would provide struggling farmers with alternative cash crops during times when their primary sources of income are not performing well.
Weeds or Treasures - it really does not matter what you call them, the fact remains they are often very powerful medicinal plants that have the potential to address many of today's major health problems and they have done so for thousands of years...
In the grave of Neanderthal man, in a cave in Iraq, grains of flower pollens were found thickly scattered in the soil surrounding his bones. The family and friends of the dead man, had surrounded his body with clusters of flowers and branches at this summer-time funeral. Analysed some 600'000 years after the death of this unknown caveman, the pollens were identified as coming from eight different genera of flowering plants, all of which flourish in the surrounding woods and fields at Shanidar to this day.
Seven of the eight species are still used for medicine in dozens of different ways by the local people. For example, the mucilaginous roots of the marsh mallow yield a soothing and healing remedy for irritated throats and disordered intestinal tracts. Ephedra is a potent remedy for asthma and a cardiac stimulant - a usage confirmed by modern science when the nerve-stimulant ephedrine was extracted from it.
Herbal medicine is the oldest form of therapy practiced by mankind. It's use spans cultural and geographic boundaries, yet how are we to account for the fact that to an astonishing degree, the same plant is employed for the same purpose in cultures so widely separated in place or time with no communication between them? It seems, that ancient man's knowledge of herbs and their medicinal uses was based on a highly-developed "dowsing" instinct, which led the healer of he tribe to the right plant and taught him or her its use. To a modern mind the idea may seem bizarre, but wild animals certainly possess such an instinct, seeking out plants which will supply the nutrients they need and unerringly avoiding those which will poison them.
These dowsing powers would explain the astonishing continuity of medicinal plant usage in the days before there were written records, or in tribes who have never known them, since the chain of oral tradition must have been broken over and over again by death, or by the scattering or obliteration of the tribe.
Many cultures have also believed in what has come to be known as The Doctrine of Signatures - the notion that plants have been signed by their Creator with visible clues to their usefulness: yellow plants would be effective against jaundice, plants with fruit shaped like genital organs might be effective in regulating or promoting fertility, a plant with fleshy lung-shaped leaves might be useful in respiratory ailments, etc.
By what ever means these ancient tribes selected their medicinal plants and identified their functions in the treatment of disease, the result is that over thousands of years herbal medicine evolved into an effective and efficient medical system to treat disease.
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