Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rethinking "Invasive Species"

Last month in Tommy Priester's Shamanic Plant Journeying class, I felt some resistance come up when I heard that we would be working with Japanese Knotweed. The idea of working with an invasive species that is seen as crowding out native plants didn't sit well with me.

The spirit of the plant told me -- "You aren't from here either."

Neither are many of the plants I work with -- Elecampane, Plantain, Dandelion, Apple all came to this country with early European colonists. But they have been part of herbal traditions on this continent for so long that most of us don't think about their origins. Some, like Elecampane, have been here for so long that tribes like the Maliseet and the Delaware long ago found uses for them that the immigrants who planted the first seeds of the species on this continent never imagined.

One interesting thing about more recent "invasive" species is that they tend to provide medicines that help address newly emerging diseases. Stephen Harrod Buhner writes in Healing Lyme that:
"[For North American herbalists] part of the importance of Japanese Knotweed as a new medicinal useful in clinical practice, is understanding that invasive plant species are specifically indicated for use with invasive or emerging diseases such as Lyme, West Nile encephalitis, SARS, hepatitis C, HIV, and so on. The use of invasive species of plants in treatment reduces the impact on non-invasive medicinals and begins using plants that are accompanying invading pathogens as they move into new ecoregions."
Indeed, I've been told that Japanese Knotweed seems to be extending its range in the same areas where the spirochetes that cause Lyme disease are expanding theirs -- though I don't know if anyone has researched this phenomenon in depth. Japanese Knotweed is also one of the plants most likely to be helpful in treating Swine Flu -- it is a great anti-inflamatory with a strong affinity for the respiratory system and most people who die from the flu die from respiratory inflamation. Another "invasive" species, Purple Loosestrife shows great potential for dealing with the effects of flus on the digestive system because as a plant that is both astringent and muscilaginous it both tones and soothes tissues. (See Jim McDonald's excellent monograph on Purple Loosestrife.)

(If there are any Native herbalists or ethnobotanists or medical anthropologists reading this, I would be very interested in knowing whether there is any evidence of eastern North American tribes using the plants the European invaders brought to treat the diseases the European invaders brought.)

Both Japanese Knotweed and Purple Loosestrife tend to colonize areas with highly polluted soil and help remediate the toxins. Jim McDonald writes:
"This brings to light an entirely new consideration as to the role of Purple Loosestrife in the environment: Is it coincidence that the plant has become invasive in environments that it just happens to be able to cleanse pollutants from? Or, in some way, does this tendency exhibit the unforeseen ways in which Nature tends to and heals itself?"
As tempting as it is for us to want to believe that we can someday restore this continent to the state it was in prior to the European invasion, that is not something we or are children or even our great-grandchildren are likely to accomplish. North America is not the same place it was two centuries ago -- culturally or ecologically. The people and species that are here now shape and are shaped by their environment. The solutions to our problems will emerge from that reality.

That means that we can't afford to ignore the role recently introduced plant species have in healing damaged bodies and damaged land. Living systems work with what's at their disposal and do what they can to find balance. As herbalists doesn't it make sense for us to do the same?

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