Flora and Medicinal Plants

Asked about her work recently, Flora talked about her goals, beliefs, and philosophy regarding medicinal plants.

“In my radio show The Plant Detective, I encourage people to see medicinal plants as the invaluable resource they are, and to protect and use them wisely.

Toward that end, I inform listeners about medicinal plants: what’s true and what isn’t; benefits and risks; and correct and incorrect or even dangerous usage.   Even if you’ve never tried echinacea or drunk a cup of peppermint tea, there are plenty of phytomedicinal compounds in your life: in the over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs you buy; in the coffee you drink, the food you eat, the lotion you put on your skin.

See Medicinal Plants for What They Are

I promote a correct vision of medicinal plants as a resource. It’s important to see them for what they are, to neither put them down, nor put them up (on a pedestal). The efficacy of medicinal compounds from plants is neither New Age nor an old wive’s tale. Nor are phytomedicinals “all-natural and therefore good.” Like any powerful chemicals that affect the body, compounds from plants should be treated with caution and used with knowledge.  Science has evaluated compounds from plants in at least two major ways. First, there’s data from thousands of years of clinical use and experimentation. Out of pure necessity, until only about 70 years ago, human cultures around the globe (including the United States and Europe) relied on plants for medicine, discovering what worked and what didn’t in ways the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would never allow today. We used medicine from nature because we didn’t have anything else. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 percent of the world’s people still rely on plant-based medicine--often by choice, because of traditional systems of medicine, but also from necessity, since Western-style pharmaceuticals and health care are often inaccessible and/or fantastically expensive. Modern scientific techniques and technology have allowed new explorations and insight into phytomedicinal compounds. At last we’ve been able to discover the exact identities and mechanisms of some of these compounds and provide hard evidence that they work. However–interestingly–despite the sophistication of modern science, the inner workings of some medicinal plants––e.g., which compounds in them are “active,”or how or why they do what they do––continue to stump researchers. Much still eludes our understanding. There is still much to learn.  The bottom line is, both these lines of inquiry––centuries of trial and error, and new scientific methods––have proven that medicinal compounds from plants are of great value to humans.  I’m not an across-the-board proponent of herbal medicine. I support aspects of both herbal and western, or allopathic, medicine, and believe that many systems of healing, including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the Indian system Ayurveda, and homeopathy, contain important knowledge, wisdom, and value.

Save Medicinal Plants

Medicinal plants are a resource to which we can turn for solutions to old or new problems. Their usefulness to humans is one reason I fight for their preservation. We’ve only screened a small percentage of known plant species for medicinal properties. Who knows what other useful remedies lie in wait for discovery? It’s also important to preserve nature’s fantastic biodiversity. Why? Because things like climate, other environmental factors, or disease resistance can change. If that happens, you want to have all the species you can, with all their unique and various characteristics––for example, drought-resistance, ability to grow in wet places, under gray conditions, or whatever––so you can draw on them if needed. It’s hard to foresee when or why such characteristics might prove useful, but that’s all the more reason to preserve diversity.  The survival and well-being of plants–medicinal plants and others–benefits both plants and people. And neither of us benefits, in the long run, from their loss.

Enrich Your Life

I also want to help preserve plants because I care about the plants themselves. As a plant detective, I have a special relationship with and understanding of plants.   Plant medicine is living medicine. When we use a plant’s medicinal properties, a relationship forms between us and the plant. That relationship may even contribute to our healing. I believe relationships with plants enrich people’s lives. These relationships can provoke a deep feeling of gratitude to nature and to the planet and even a feeling of belonging. Those aren’t bad things to feel; they may even be good for you, and I don’t just mean emotionally. Physically too.   It’s easy to forget how much we owe plants and the other living or natural sources of so many of the substances and objects we use. At least in the West, we buy most of what we use, ready-made. It’s easy not to think twice--or even once--about these things, as if we humans simply create everything, or as if things just spring into existence on their own, and don’t “come” from anywhere.  I’m not suggesting that we go back to nature, but I am suggesting that we go back to thinking long-term vs. short-term, the way people often do when they live closer to the land.  Be more conscious. Act in ways that will help conserve plants that have, again and again, for centuries, demonstrated their value. Before using them, educate yourself about them so that you hurt neither yourself nor them (and their reputation). Don’t put them up on a pedestal. Don’t diss them either.  Be wise about conserving this incredibly rich resource, the plants of the earth. And think every now and then about paying medicinal plants, and all plants, conscious gratitude and respect.  If you do, I bet your life will feel richer. Living with gratitude and respect inside the big mystery, alongside other equally wonderful and complex forms of life, that’s the way to go . . . the right path . . . the way we’re meant to live. That’s what I’ve learned from plants and my travels around the world in search of them.”