Sustainable & Bioregional Herbalism
Your Source for Learning About Local Herbs, DIY Herbalism, and Botanical Stewardship
What is sustainable herbalism?
Wikipedia has a lovely definition for sustainability: “In ecology, sustainability is the capacity to endure; it is how biological systems remain diverse and productive indefinitely.”1 When we relate this to herbalism and plant communities, we see the importance of making choices based on our responsibility to the health of our wider ecosystems.
In other words, we need to ask: what is our impact? How do we reciprocate?
Robin Wall Kimmerer—a plant ecologist, writer, professor, and citizen of the Potawatomi Nation—describes this simply: “We must recognize ourselves as only one member of the great democracy of species and understand that we, like every other successful organism, must play by the rules that govern ecosystem function.”2
In a nutshell, this means that we do all of the following:
- Source our healing herbs locally as much as possible from 1) small organic farms or 2) abundant weedy medicinals that have a near-global distribution
- Choose cultivated herbs or non-native opportunistic medicinals over wild plants that are threatened, endangered, or at risk of becoming so
- Educate ourselves about sustainable wildcrafting
- Recognize that affordability is an impediment to many folks having access to herbs
- Consider the next seven generations (and beyond) of plants, animals (including humans) and other life forms who will inhabit the earth
- Cultivate a practice of gratitude and reciprocity with the plants and the elements that sustain and nourish them
- Give back to the plant world by growing rare or endangered medicinals and working to protect vital natural ecosystems from development
- Support local medicine makers who seek out regional growers and sustainable wildcrafters
Bioregional herbalism raises the stakes and is sustainable herbalism’s more intimate and place-based kissing cousin. This is where we tune in deeply to the health of local plant populations and favor the abundant “weedy” medicinals and wild edibles when we wildcraft (this is especially true of invasive species!).
We learn to grow our own herbs and work to protect and replenish rare native species. We identify which plants in our bioregion are threatened or endangered and opt, without exception, for sustainable alternatives.
Ready to reinvent how you gather, grow, or purchase herbal medicines? We’ve laid out information about a quadruplet of important options: sustainable foraging, sustainable herb cultivation, supporting local herb farmers and ethical wildcrafters, and investigating your herbal supply chain. Keep reading for our recommendations!
Gathering wild plants sustainably means that we honestly assess the health of local plant populations and favor weedy and invasive medicinals. Learning the medicine of local weeds can be even more sustainable than relying on field-grown cultivated herbs (which typically involves clearing forests and inputs such as irrigation and soil amendments).
It’s also essential to educate ourselves on sustainable and safe gathering practices. If you’re excited about foraging wild food or medicine, spend some time over at our Foraging Hub—it’s stocked with a hearty supply of resources, including these:
- Foraging for Wild Edibles and Herbs: Sustainable and Safe Gathering Practices
- The 10 Best Wild Foods and Medicinals for Beginning Foragers and Wildcrafters
- Wild Foods Recipe Round-Up
- Essential Foraging Tools & Supplies
- The Ten Best Books on Foraging Wild Foods and Herbs
- The Top Herbal and Foraging Blogs, Podcasts, and YouTube Channels
- and more!
Sustainable Herb Cultivation
One of the best ways to ensure your herbs are sustainable and of tip-top quality is to grow them yourself. Have questions about how to start a medicinal herb garden? Or about the nuances of cultivating rare woodland herbs? How about choosing plants that will thrive regardless of whether your thumb is green or brown? Dig up all the details at our Medicinal Herb Gardening Hub. You’ll find a selection of articles we’ve personally penned:
- The Top 10 Medicinal Herbs for the Garden
- 9 Tips for Planning the Herb Garden of Your Dreams
- 7 Medicinal Herbs for Urban Gardeners
- Root Division: Multiply Your Medicinal Herb Harvest with These Plant Propagation Tips
- Herbal Seed Suppliers and Nurseries: Ethical Sources for Medicinal Seeds & Plants
- Guidelines to Growing Medicinal Herbs from Seed
- Cultivating Medicinal Herbs, with a Focus on At-Risk Woodland Medicinals
- Kauai Farmacy Gardens: Bioregional Farm-to-Apothecary
- And more!
Support Local Herb Farms & Ethical Wildcrafters
It’s not always possible to grow your own herbs or to sustainably wildcraft all the plants you’d like to use for medicine. A fantastic alternative is to search out local herb farmers and wildcrafters who grow or gather plants in a sustainable and ethical fashion. Want to find out who’s providing plants near you? Check out Rosalee de la Forêt’s Guide to Sustainable Herb Farms and Ethical Wildcrafters in the USA and Canada.
Investigate Your Herbal Supply Chain
Even in a business as seemingly wholesome as herbal medicine, there are plenty of shady practices going down. Many store-bought herbs (and those purchased online through sites like Amazon) are sourced from other countries and may not always be grown with sustainable or organic practices. Consider purchasing only fairtrade herbs, research any company or farm you’re considering buying herbs from, and don’t hesitate to ask questions!
Want to know where your herbs come from and why it matters? Check out the work of the Sustainable Herbs Program—an organization dedicated to educating folks about the herbal supply chain and making herbal medicine safer, less expensive, and healthier for people and the planet.
If you’re ready for even more information, here are a few of our favorite resources and organizations dedicated to sustainable herbalism:
- Wikipedia. “Sustainability”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability#cite_note-1
- Kimmerer, RW. Returning the Gift. https://www.humansandnature.org/earth-ethic-robin-kimmerer
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Meet the Models
MEGHAN GEMMA is one of the Chestnut School’s primary instructors through her written lessons, and is the principal pollinator of the school’s social media community—sharing herbal and wild foods wisdom from the flowery heart of the school to an ever-wider field of herbalists, gardeners, healers, and plant lovers.
She has been in a steady relationship with the Chestnut School since 2010—as an intern and manager at the Chestnut Herb Nursery; as a plant-smitten student “back in the day” when the school’s programs were taught in the field; and later as a part the school’s woman-powered professional team. Meghan lives in the Ivy Creek watershed, just north of Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by Juliet Blankespoor
INDY SRINATH is a Los Angeles based urban gardener, mushroom cultivator, and food justice advocate. She’s committed to increasing organic food access and health literacy in underserved populations. Find her work on Instagram @indyofficinalis. Photo by Juliet Blankespoor