The Restoration of Authentic Plant Medicine to North America

What if medicines were regarded as special foods, some to be eaten as part of the diet, some reserved for special occasions, and others taken only upon the advice of a health practitioner?

More than five centuries ago, most people thought of medicines this way. The oldest book of herbs in the world, the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, was written for healthy people as advice to maintain health, and classifies medicinal plants into these three groups.

The European colonization of North America interrupted the practice of plant medicine on this continent in more ways than one. Millions of Native Americans died in response to European diseases; knowledge was extinguished along with lives, and the displacement of tribes disrupted the connection with medicinal plants.

Not all was lost. The Great Spirit ensured that native religious values survived and are thriving today. Knowledge of individual plants has been kept, passed on, even taught to the newly-arrived Europeans and Africans. However, in an oral tradition the details of medical practice—the methods of diagnosis and treatment, an elaborate model of health, points of connection to the underlying philosophy—do not survive cultural disruptions (including the Inquisition, the trans-Atlantic crossings) as experienced during the 500-year modern era in the West.

For well over a century now, North Americans have been stuck with the drug model of medicine. The focus is on disease; medicine is used to alleviate or suppress symptoms with little regard to underlying causes of imbalance. Whether botanical, chemical or genetically-engineered drugs, medicine is considered to be something a patient ingests after the disease has advanced to a stage of discomfort. Lots of money is being made from desperate sick people who perhaps could have prevented their illness with good food and medicinal plants. It’s high time for a better idea!

The phoenix is rising from the ashes, presenting a great opportunity to return to a superior model of health care. In parallel with the organic farming movement that took hold beginning in the 1970s, the profession of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has established itself in North America. Today over fifty accredited graduate colleges, national certification, and licensure in more than 40 states support some 20,000 practitioners in the United States alone.

Asia and North America have a special relationship. Domestic cultivation of about 300 Asian medicinal plants is proceeding, in service to the assimilation of this new concept of medicine. Moreover, these Asian plants are closely related to North American analog species, a phenomenon long recognized by botanists. An exciting new frontier of knowledge beckons, to learn and adapt the ways medicinal plants are combined together into formulas and integrated into our diets. The Western plant species are being reappraised, to understand whether they can substitute for their Asian counterparts in formulas, or otherwise be included in a different treatment category as an addition to the materia medica.

To date, three authors have reported on their investigations into North American or European species and their classification according to the Asian system (listed below). Three opinions are a good start; however, this line of investigation is a long-term consensual process expected to take place over the next few decades. Our human senses of taste and smell can provide the measurement tools to make this an evidence-based process. A team led by Dr. Craig Hassel at the University of Minnesota is adapting a sensory descriptive analysis protocol based on established techniques in food science. This method compares a number of plant samples to a standard, and yields replicable results using graduate students as tasters.

Some day soon, teams including Oriental Medicine practitioners and medicinal plant growers will be able to compare Asian and Western herbs grown in different locations in North America and, using this method of sensory analysis, determine which of the samples most closely resembles the Asian standard. In this way, substitutions of ingredients in classic formulas can be made on the basis of evidence and informed consensus. Medicinal plant growers can invest in long-term crops with confidence based on quality measurements that respect the plant’s adaptive capacity and ability to reflect the health of its ecosystem.

Holmes, Peter, 1989. The Energetics of Western Herbs, Vols 1&2. (Berkeley CA: NatTrop Publishing)

Ross, Jeremy, 2003. Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine (Seattle WA: Greenfields Press)

Garran, Thomas Avery, 2008. Western Herbs According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (Rochester VT: Healing Arts Press)