Foraging for medicinal plants gains popularity

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Seagrass. Image: Smithsonian Institution

Editor’s note: This is the third part of a 6-part series called Renaissances: Environment Creative Culture by Kathleen Fitch, Anne Hooper, Chioma Lewis, Lea Mitchell & Lillian Young.

By Lea Mitchell

Foraging for medicinal and indigenous foods is a prehistoric practice that not only has boosts immune systems, but has gained increased attention due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Plant foraging, or gathering plants like elderberry, seagrass, echinacea and ginger, provides health benefits for humans and is vital in keeping a healthy lifestyle, according to indigenous groups.

“Foraging is important because the Creator gave us all these medicines so we could live healthy, balanced lives,” said Susan Chiblow, member of the Garden River First Nation in Ontario.

Chiblow said medicinal plants are foods with therapeutic and health properties that have a beneficial effect on the body.

For Chiblow, the land is highly valued, and there is a spiritual connection to and interaction with it.

“The land is our everything. If the land is sick, then we are sick. The land is our education system, it is our pharmacy, it’s our kitchen, it’s everything,” she said.

With the rise of the pandemic, gathering is done in pairs or on their own, which hinders the learning process and can make it harder to access some plants.

For example, a copious amount of medicines come from the swamp, but climate change has affected how high the water is. This causes a challenge for smaller foragers because they cannot reach them.

“In most cases, gathering is done as a collective group, this way we can learn from one another. Another thing is climate change has raised the water and because I am too small, I can’t always reach what I need,” Chiblow said.

Foraging can promote being outdoors, educational opportunities and nutrients that boost the immune system.

According to Mike Schellenberg, a plant breeder for Agri-Food Canada, there are many native species that can be used as medicine and for other needs, and scientists haven’t even scratched the surface of their potential.

“There is evidence there could be potential use for many species, and plant breeding can help with that by providing the most essential nutrients of several species,” he said.

Plant breeding is when scientists change the traits of species of plants to get the characteristics and optimal nutrients they desire. It is used to improve the quality of nutrients in plants that humans and animals consume.

“Plant breeding is important because it goes back to ecosystem services, which means it is providing benefits to people and the environment. It aids biodiversity as well,” Schellenberg said.

Schellenberg’s research has shown a variety of plants he works with were historically used for their medicinal properties, but may have slipped under the radar with the rise of technological innovation and plant breeding.

“White prairie clovers were used for medical and general purposes. The shape of the plants makes it a broom, but the compound within the leaves makes it a derivative in the same chemical class as an opioid. It is a pain relief too,” he said.

Chiblow said the idea of ecosystem services looks a bit different from an indigenous perspective, but serves a similar purpose in regards to the land.

“People have connected the land and its reciprocal relations. You have to give to the land, you can’t always take. We have a responsibility to the plant’s life and the health that comes from continuing to use those types of medicines,” Chiblow said.

Chiblow, who grew up gathering plants from the land, said plants keep the immune system strong, which is important for a healthy life, but even more important during a pandemic.

“It keeps your mind strong and healthy. I pick these medicines so I don’t get the flu or any illness,” she said.

According to older members of the Garden River First Nation, the land is contaminated and sick.

“A lot of old people talk about what is going on with the land, and we are seeing all these new diseases happening because, as human beings, we have created such a mess out there,” Chiblow said.

The pandemic has had many negative effects on foraging, but didn’t directly affect the amount of foraging or research being done.

According to Chiblow and Schellenberg, if there is one positive that came out of the pandemic, it would be that it’s promoted awareness of foraging and plant breeding, which are of growing importance.

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