One thing I have found to be true in the time that I have spent observing and interacting with the natural world is that very often the plants that we need most for medicine are growing in abundance nearby. Whenever I notice a proliferation of a particular plant, I’m inclined to ask “what role are you playing in this environment?” And “how might you provide healing in this place and time?”
With garlic mustard these days, the answers seem rather clear.
Its virtues were well known by the people in its native lands. Garlic mustard was originally brought to North America in the mid 19th century by the English settlers who made regular use of it as an edible and medicinal plant. I imagine they viewed it as a suitable plant to cultivate here due to its ability to thrive in colder climates. It was desirable also because of its high vitamin C content. It was known as an antiscorbutic (scurvy preventative) agent. In order to have access to garlic mustard throughout the year, the plant was commonly preserved in vinegar to have on hand as a nutritive and antiseptic agent.
What the settlers did not realize of course, was how eagerly it would grow here. When it moves into an area, garlic mustard easily and quickly seeds itself, spreading and replacing many native species. As part of the takeover, it emits chemical compounds in the soil that destroy the mycorrhizal fungi. These soil microbes are a key aspect of the health and immunity of many woodland plants and trees. Without them, it is that much more difficult for other plant life to compete against the garlic mustard, and the garlic mustard often wins.
Ironically, these chemical compounds are the same sulphur compounds I discussed in my previous post on garlic mustard. Known as glucosinolates (and their derivatives), they support our immunity while helping to ward off bacterial and fungal growth in our bodies. What we’re seeing therefore, is that the very compounds from this plant that pose a threat to our native flora can meanwhile help to support our wellness in the face of infection.
While it is clear to see why garlic mustard’s aggressive growth habits are much maligned by concerned naturalists wanting to protect native ecosystems, the most sensible response to this situation seems to be for us to harvest the plant, and make use of the medicine it provides. Some plant medicines are endangered, and their harvest is outlawed or strongly discouraged. We’re watching the endangerment of more and more wild plants and animals as the biodiversity of our planet diminishes. Other plant medicines however are newly emerging in places they have not grown before. Their harvest not only poses no risk to their survival, but it may significantly help to protect the damaged ecosystems where they thrive.
The ability of an invasive species to take over an ecosystem is contingent on the resilience of that ecosystem. Many of the word’s ecosystems have been weakened already by other disturbances like chemical runoff, deforestation, excavation and nearby development. Weakness creates an opening for opportunistic species. These days, there are few habitats on earth that have not been so disturbed, and we now find ourselves faced with the infiltration of invasives en masse. In a sense, we could say that the immunity of many ecosystems is not strong enough to withstand invasion.
We see this same encroachment happening on macro and microcosmic levels throughout our world. Much like the ecosystems of the earth, human immunity and resilience have also been weakened by chemical and electromagnetic pollutants in our field. These, combined with nutrient deficiencies from a food supply grown on depleted soil, make us open to invasion by opportunistic super bugs that threaten to take down the very fabric of our societies…..And here we are in the spring of 2020.
Fortunately, natural processes tend to be cyclical. While garlic mustard is currently enjoying a population boom, the compounds it emits have been shown to peak and decline within a 25-30 year period. Following that, the soil mycorrhiza tend to return, along with other plant species to replace the excess garlic mustard. Even while it’s booming, it is also not solely problematic. Its warming sulphur compounds seem to speed up leaf breakdown and metabolism in the soil, making nutrients more quickly available to the flora of the area, and ultimately feeding the soil for future plant life. As for the infiltration of viruses, humanity has endured many and our species has not only survived, but our immune intelligence has strengthened and wizened through the experience of meeting them.
So when I look to a patch of garlic mustard on a forest edge, and ask “what role are you playing in this environment?”, what seems to be true to me is that it is resiliently holding a place for plant life within a climate that is increasingly challenging to the survival of many plants. And in response to the question “how might you provide healing in this place and time?”, I see it on a long term path towards restoring the land, while on a short term path towards contributing to human health and resilience.
CLICK HERE for Part I: Garlic Mustard, Plant Ally of the Moment
Scott, Timothy Lee; Invasive Plant Medicine; Healing Arts Press; Rochester Vermont; 2010
Evans, Lankau, Davis, Raghu, Landis; “Soil mediated eco-evolutionary feedbacks in the invasive plant Alliaria petiolatata”; Functional Ecology Vol. 30 Issue no. 7; British Ecological Society; May 2016
Rodgers, Wolfe, Werden et al; “The Invasive Species Alliaria pertiolata (Garlic Mustard) Increases Soil Nutrient Availalbility in Northern Hardwood-conifer Forests”; Oecologia 157. no. 3: September 15 2008
The word “thrive” has a sense of wildness to it. An idea of energized wellness, well adapted to changing environments and outside influences, responding to life’s encounters with strength, agility, creativity and timeliness. We tend to yearn for this type of well being. This ease of adaptability. Ease of unity with others, balanced with strong enough boundaries to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
To me, wild wellness speaks of relying on our innate intelligence and intuitive knowing to make the best decisions in all aspects of our lives, like what to eat and when, how to move our bodies, where to focus our awareness, when we are safe and when there is danger, when to seek support and when we’ve “got this” on our own.
We can learn a lot about wild wellness by paying attention to wild ecosystems of any size and in any place, from woodlands to beaches to backyards to urban alleyways…
We know that ecosystems thrive on the dynamic changes that continually occur on various levels, taking cues from and responding to all sorts of influences, like the ever changing habitation and visitation of insects, birds and animals, and the longer term life cycles of plants, trees, fungi and lichen that offer opportunities for growth and decay in different ways at different times.
Where there is disturbed or impoverished soil, trees may not be growing, as the land is in the process of gathering nutrients and moisture to make the site suitable for them to live there again one day. The earth will then use her wild intelligence to support that land with certain plants and their root systems along with the bacteria and mycorrhizae that surround them, all helping to bring more nourishment to the soil, while restoring and retaining moisture at the same time. A good example of this type of plant is mullein (Verbascum thaspus) which thrives on poor, dry rocky or sandy sites for a few years following some sort of disturbance, followed afterwards by other plants that are able to grow in the soil that the mullein has prepared for them. Mullein is also an important plant medicine for humans, helping to restore healthy tissue growth at sites of injury and irritation, bringing more fluids and nutrients to the tissues, and in turn, more soothing and healing.
Mullein (Verbascum thaspus)
Nowadays, as we well know, many ecosystems on the planet are working to adapt themselves to toxic loads. As chemicals and heavy metals from ever-growing industry and ever increasing waste build up in the soil daily, they are carried from place to place in the hard-to-predict movements of water and air, affecting ecosystems that may even be some distance from the original source of the pollution. Sadly, this means that sometimes even seemingly healthy forests and wild lands where balance and relative purity has been maintained throughout our lives are now taking up toxicity, weakening their native plants and trees, and bringing more potential for illness. As trees are felled for industrial and/or large scale agricultural growth, and their vast root systems, so crucial for supporting nutrient sharing and immunity are depleted, ecosystem resilience seems to suffer all the more.
What we can observe however is that challenged ecosystems still employ the strength of the earth’s ancient wild intelligence to help them restore balance, clear away toxicity, rebuild nutrients and provide food and shelter for other life forms–in other words, to continue to thrive despite the challenges. Fortunately for us as inhabitants of the earth, there are plants with enough intense resilience and strength to grow in disturbed and toxic ecosystems. Plants that continue to oxygenate our air, while rendering benign organic matter out of harmful chemicals throughout their growth cycle, and at the same time, providing food and medicine for the earth and its surrounding life forms.
More and more we are seeing this as “invasive plants” show up at sites of toxic spills and industrial accidents, thriving when other species can’t. The idea of allowing the growth of “invasive” plants in toxic areas so that the earth’s natural phytoremediation process can occur is being taken more seriously as we increasingly recognize and integrate the idea that the earth’s intelligence is incomparably more sophisticated than that of humans at this point. And not only are we finding this support for ecosystems from these plants, it turns out that many of our “invasive” wild plants are proving to be important medicines for a growing number of health challenges that have been linked to exposure to environmental toxicity. We find in many of them medicinal properties that address health issues such as systemic infections from new super bugs, various auto-immune issues and cancers.
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago about one of these important plant medicines, Japanese knotweed.
…And this one, by Michigan herbalist Jim McDonald that expounds on the medicinal and phytoremedial benefits of another “invasive” healing plant, Purple Loosestrife.
This study examined the wild plants that grew and thrived while taking up numerous heavy metals and arsenic following a toxic mine spill near Seville, Spain.
…And here, a Boston University study on the ability of our fiercely invasive (and very nutritious) Garlic Mustard to speed up nutrient recycling in forest leaf litter, allowing trees and plants to take up nutrition at a faster rate, and thus helping to restore the overall health of the forest over time.
Japanese Knotweed (Polygonum cuspidatum)
As our environment changes, wild ecosystems shift, becoming habitable spaces for new species, and sometimes less habitable for those who have been living there. While these changes seem disturbing, especially as we watch them happening at such an alarming rate, I believe it is important at this time to trust in the earth’s dynamic wild intelligence which is never static but relies on continual change and adaptation in order to thrive.
There is potential for much more research in the area of phytoremediation and invasive plant medicine. I would wholeheartedly encourage this type of study. Even if lab research is not being widely supported enough at this time however, we can make our own observations, collect our own empirical data, do our own research, and share our findings with others. I believe that doing this grassroots level work will prove to be invaluable for many of us as we come to rely increasingly on the resources directly around us to support our needs for health, and otherwise.
I have been focusing on this area, and intend to continue doing so as I watch these “invaders” enter our landscape while we encounter perplexing new illnesses whose treatment approaches are still uncertain.
As we come to recognize that our innate intelligence is not separate from that of the earth, I believe we will ignite our potential to thrive in ways we may not yet have imagined.
Scott, Timothy Lee. Invasive Plant Medicine. Rochester Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 2010