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 


Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) harvest

Homegrown meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

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


Picking Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), an invasive medicinal

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!

 

foraging with scissors

Sustainable Foraging

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:

 


Herb seedlings in Juliet's former herb nursery

Herbal seedlings

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:

 

tending to roselle hibiscus

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.

 

Freshly cleaned passionflower seeds (Passiflora incarnata)

Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) seeds

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.

Further Learning

If you’re ready for even more information, here are a few of our favorite resources and organizations dedicated to sustainable herbalism:

References

  1. Wikipedia. “Sustainability”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainability#cite_note-1
  2. Kimmerer, RW. Returning the Gift. https://www.humansandnature.org/earth-ethic-robin-kimmerer

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