Botanical Solutions

Imagine that you are a Roman foot soldier battling barbarians on the northern frontier. Your army just won the day’s battle, but your arm has been pierced by an enemy’s blade, and the wound continues to bleed. As you regroup with your legion, you stumble across a patch of blooming , fern-like wildflowers. You recognize them from the wisedom of your mother who told you the name of these wildflowers: “Achillea” – the flower of Achilles.

You grab a bundle of the flowers, and pick a bundle of leaves. You chew the flowers into a poultice, while you stuff the leafy stems into the bleeding wound in your arms. You spit the poultice out of your mouth, and apply it to the top of the wound. Then, you wrap your wounded arm in leather, and know that you will live to fight another day.

**********************************************

So, let’s fast forward our imaginations to the modern day.

You are a lawyer. On your way to the office, you wade through commuter traffic and fight to find a parking spot within walking distance of your office. On the way to the office, you must walk under construction scaffolding, and unbeknownst to you, six stories up, a construction worker spills hot coffee on himself, and knocks a piece of rebar down. You are admiring the landscaping across the street when the rebar hits your arm, causing a bleeding wound. Of course, being that you are a lawyer, this starts to get way more complicated. Suffice to say, the ambulance crew cleans your wound with all manner of chemical compounds, and before you know it, you are stitched up and back on your feet, ready to go to war with the construction contractor.

And since we’re using our imaginations, wouldn’t it be ironic if the flowering plants that the lawyer was looking at in the landscaping were Achillea (Yarrow) in full bloom?

**************************************************

Why “Botanical Solutions?”

Yarrow (Achillea) is a good example. The first story illustrates how a Roman soldier might have used yarrow for medical purposes in the battlefield. Today, science has provided the tools to better understand the meaning behind the historical references and mythological symbols of plants like Achillea/ Yarrow. (link)

Modern science has been able to show that the chemical metabolites of Yarrow contain specific astringent, anti-inflammatory, and pain-reducing qualities (for more on this, review the link above). An important difference between the two introductory stories is the expression of knowledge related to the chemical properties of Yarrow. In the first story, the Roman soldier possessed knowledge of the “medical” properties of yarrow. In the second story, we had to extend our imagination further to suggest that yarrow was even present in the scenario, but not recognized, and not utilized for its “medical” properties.

This is all conjecture. The point is, often, a solution to a problem is right at our feet. The question becomes, do we possess the knowledge required to see it?

Why do so many people go hungry when the earth sustains so much food?

Why do medicines get more expensive while the medicinal plants go unrecognized? Why are family farms struggling?

How does one grow their own food? How can you tell if a wild plant is edible? How can you tell if a plant is poisonous? How do you kill weeds? What weeds are edible? What are metabolites? How can I screen the view from my neighbor’s window, attract butterflies and humming birds, have flowers all year long, and still have a garden with foraging deer? How about in the shade?

A Marine that I worked with once told me that there are a thousand ways to solve any problem. Good advice from a good man. I live under the presumption (admittedly, one of many) that plants are the biological foundation of all higher life forms . So I follow this to arguably the best pragmatic conclusion that any given problem has a botanical solution.

And there you have it. Plant Fix- Botanical Solutions.

Ethnobotany and the Secret Life of Plants: Episode 1

Many times over the course of my work, I have been asked about my interest in gardening and botany in general. Depending on the situation, I generally provide one of two answers.

The common answer is casual. “I liked gardening and wanted to learn more.”

But the second answer, the real answer, is the one that I save for clients that I have worked with often. I became interested in plants because, as an anthropology major, I was interested in the way people of various cultures around the world use plants. Through the course of my studies I came to find that plants are a fundamental element of human society, and each culture has its own manner by which it interacts with the botanical world. And so, my academic focus shifted from anthropology to ethnobotany (via Mesoamerica, more on this later).

Ethnobotany is basically the scientific study of how people around the world use plants: plants as tools, as construction materials, and fibers, plants as color dyes for works of art and textiles, plants as food, and plants as medicine. The Harvard botanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes is considered by many to be the founder of modern ethnobotany. Now, every science has it’s intellectual hero. Physics has Newton, Einstein, Planck. Chemistry has Robert Boyle. Music has Mozart. Ethnobotany has Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, and it was he that lifted the curtain on the secret life of plants. Unfortunately, only a few were paying attention.

Richard Evans Schultes is among the greatest academic geniuses of the natural world that only a few know about. Too bad too. His work is fantastic. He was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be. He was charting ethnographic work before ethnographers knew what they were doing. He roamed the jungles of South America looking for isolated tribal people so that he might understand the plants they use. He took really good notes, and helped shaped the scientific classification of many previously unknown but important plants. Greater than all of that, he helped influence the way chemistry and pharmacology utilize plant metabolites for medical production. And did I mention that he was the most perfect blend of a gardener and Indiana Jones there ever could be?

After studying the work of R.E. Schultes, I became a fan. The anthropologist in me had dreams of traveling to remote parts of the Amazon to enter an indigenous culture and study their gardening methods. But, the blessed life that I live has not yet allowed this flight of intellectual fancy. So, the pragmatist in me has settled for gardening at home, and learning from the garden in the manner of a native living in the Amazon. The problem is, I live in Texas, and the soil and climate are much different. (In fact, they are almost opposites).

I have tried to grow many different plants. Many have died, but many more seem to live. I have learned that each plant has a specific window of requirements that it needs to live well. For some it’s more water, for others, it’s a lower soil pH. Every plant wants to grow in its own ideal climate, so the trick in gardening is changing the gardening environment to match the plants ideal growing conditions. And if one pays attention, the plant will show signs that tell the gardener what it needs. (more on this later).

One of the rewards of the garden is that it is a learning environment that can open up new possibilities for enhancing life. Gardens can provide food, and they can add spice to food. They can provide medicines, and can inspire new medical treatments. They can provide new color dyes to add to a painting, and create new forms of fuel. They can provide a habitat for wildlife, and they can create a peaceful place to relax and enjoy life.

This is why I garden. This is why I work, and why I learn, and desire to help others do the same. This is the long answer to the question of, “how did you get into gardening?” Sometimes, it’s just easier to say, “because I like gardening.” This is most certainly true, but please understand that plants have more to offer us than we can completely understand. For everything we currently know about plants as a collective culture, there remains much more that we do not know, simply because we haven’t acquired the proper knowledge. In other words, gardening and learning about plants offer a broad potential for expanding the way we use them, and enjoy our environment.

And, as the work of Dr. Richard Evans Schultes illustrates, plants have secrets. Guarded secrets, but important ones none-the-less (more on this later).