A short list of things I know from being a lifelong reader of the Old Farmer’s Almanac: How to hypnotize a chicken. How to get the fix in a crayfish race. Why stone house toads occasionally have orgies. Whether or not an 8-year old needs a truss (OK, I had to ask my dad). And how to make a personal fortune raising ginseng.
Which, as you might have guessed, I never did. But I did start sending away for ginseng brochures and free herb seed catalogues—gateway reading, as it turns out, for heavier scenes like A Modern Herbal, Margaret Grieve’s two-volume 1931 medicinal plant compendium, and the shunned texts of other old-school herbalists like Jethro Kloss. Everybody has to start somewhere.
“I guess I’ve just always like plants,” says herbal consultant Rebecca Wittenberg. “My father used to wake me up in the middle of the night to smell the honey locust in bloom, and I’ve always liked to go into the woods and ask, ‘Hmm, what can I eat here?’ It just sort of grew into this passion for plants, and at some point I realized, wow, I can make money at this!”
Wittenberg, who received her formal training in herbal medicine at the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Ariz., is one of 13 educators at this year’s Montana Herb Gathering, a three-day workshop/retreat with classes this weekend at the University of Montana’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest. She’s also one of the event’s founders. What began five years ago as just a loose network of local herbalists she could talk plants with has blossomed into an herbal education jamboree that draws herbalists from Idaho, Washington, New Mexico and Ontario.
Also among the 12 other teachers at this year’s gathering: UM pharmaceutical sciences Professor Rustem Medora; Missoula neurologist and cannabinoid researcher, Ethan Russo; Meadowsweet Herbs co-owner Elaine Sheff; and Southwest School of Botanical medicine director Michael Moore, who taught many of the herbalists now working in the Missoula area. To judge from the excitement of some of his former students, Moore’s visit to Montana is an epochal event.
I’d been warned that Moore was something of a gruff old cuss, but when I reached him at his school in Bisbee he treated me to almost a half hour of bramble-thick discourse. Not, as I’d originally asked, about his early interest in medicinal plants (he’s been an herbalist since 1970), but mostly about big businesses like Wal-Mart moving into herbal remedies and a medical establishment in which it’s increasingly difficult to find a general practitioner who can talk to you for 10 minutes about your health.
“Well,” Wittenberg says when I recap my talk with her former mentor, “That’s really a big part of the story right now. Herbalism is really undergoing a renaissance, and part of it is that the medical profession has let people down so badly.”
“An herbalist is just somebody who’s involved in medicine who happens to think plants are the way to go about it,” she adds. “They’ve thrown away the whole idea that they need someone to bless them and tell them they may go out and do it. They’re kind of the mugwumps of the medical world who just say, ‘Hey, people can heal themselves, and leave us all alone.’ We’re done with the idea of someone telling you who your healer is and what you can and can’t do. We need people looking at their own health and taking charge of it, even if that means some possible dangers.”
Wittenberg admits that a small number of fatalities have been connected to self-administered herbal remedies. Still, she asserts, there are many, many more deaths each year from allopathic medicine—“everything from aspirin to Ex-Lax”—than there are from herbs.
“It means a lot of responsibility,” she says. “But overall most of the plants that people are dealing with are very, very safe—much more similar to broccoli than to something really dangerous. Sitting and having a cup of chamomile tea in the afternoon is herbalism. Drinking coffee in the morning is herbalism.”
“And, of course,” she continues, “There’s a real immediate issue here of the media playing up anything dangerous about herbs and playing down [the benefits]. I get really tired of the whole ‘Do herbs work?’ thing. Seventy percent of our drugs come directly from herbal sources and always have. Anyone who thinks herbs don’t work should try quitting coffee tomorrow.”
Another contentious issue in herbalism these days is the debate over wildcrafting—the harvesting of plants in the wild—versus growing one’s own. Wittenberg, whose first job in herbalism was gathering wild plants, comes down on the side of organic cultivation.
“I personally am really committed to organic growing of plants,” she says. “A lot of people will say they’re not as strong, and they’re probably right, but I think it’s more moral to use a larger quantity of an organic plant than a smaller quantity of a wildcrafted plant, particularly the things that are endangered—goldenseal and ginseng being the most famous, of course. We’re also very lucky to have some amazing organic growers right here in the Missoula area.”
Contentious issues aside, however, Wittenberg says that the fun and companionship are what she looks forward to at the fifth Montana Herb Gathering. Classes are filling up fast, and overnight accommodations at the Lubrecht facility have been booked for weeks.
“It is a lot of fun,” she says. “I just really crave the talking to other people who want to stay up until two in the morning talking about devil’s club, you know? I don’t get to do it that often.”