Sunday, 28 August 2016

Garbling the message

Herbalists use the word "garble" to describe the process of preparing plant material for use. Dictionaries call this definition "obsolete". (sigh)

To everyone else, to garble is to mix up words or ideas so badly that the original meaning or intent is obscured.

I can tell you, when it comes to all things herbal, the message out there on the internet is garbled in the second sense. Pretty badly, too.

Google the herb of your choice + medicinal uses and you'll see what I mean. I just did a random search on red clover, picked any site and found misinformation, right off the bat, here.

"You can use the dried leaves to brew a delicious, sweet tea, and can have a number of powerful effects on the body. The raw greens of the plant can also be consumed, and are packed with nutritious elements..." 

We don't use the leaves, we use the flowers. Red clover leaves are too high in coumarins, which thin the blood, to be safe for regular consumption. This is especially so for menopausal women who very often already experience heavy periods, the last thing this group needs or wants is thinned blood - yet red clover is commercially touted and pushed on menopausal women for its supposed hormonal actions. Red clover leaves are also high in oxalates, another good reason that they shouldn't be used regularly by all and sundry. Again, marketed to older women, again a group who are more likely to have kidney stones or gout; the last thing they need is red clover leaves ...

The other day Paul and I ran into a young man who considers himself a wildcrafter and prepper. We traded stories. He asked me if I know mullein. Yeah, I know mullein all right. It's one of the most valuable medicine plants we have. I was stunned and dismayed to hear him launch into a speech about how valuable it is as a substitute for toilet paper. 

At first I laughed, and pointed out that if you're not careful those tiny hairs on mullein leaves can get stuck in delicate places and they'll feel like tiny shards of glass. But he was insistent, no, that's what it's best for. 

He's young, he'll learn. I sincerely doubt he has been wildcrafting for the 6 or 7 years he claimed. If he has, how on earth has he managed to not learn the myriad uses of mullein?

But that's how it goes. With internet sources and the blinders of the (stupid) prepper mindset, this is what passes for wildcrafting. As Paul and I bombarded him with another 6 or 7 uses for mullein I watched his eyes glaze over and a bit of a smirk developing. He didn't care to know. He'd found his toilet paper and that's what mattered to him. Before we left, I threw him a bone; taught him what yarrow looks like so he can stop the bleeding if he happens to cut himself in the field, and plantain, too, for the inevitable stings or splinters he'll get. Someday he'll experience the truth that mullein makes for risky toilet paper. Karma's going to be a bitch that day.

The experience of meeting him has left me a bit low. I know how much misinformation is out there; an awful lot of the teaching I do involves dismantling the mythology my students have in their heads about how, why and when to use which plant. Sometimes when I can't sleep I troll the comment sections of sites like "Natural News", one of the most hateful and dangerous sources of misinformation out there. I correct errors in the articles, I offer suggestions for alternatives to the expensive and either useless or dangerous supplements they tout. Of course my comments are removed as often as they get through .. but I feel I have to try. Someone has to.

From echinacea in shampoo to wild crafted chaga for dogs, the message of herbal medicine is so badly garbled as to be nonsense. Utter nonsense.

But there is good information out there. There are talented, experienced herb-folk giving their valuable time and energy to teach the whys and wherefores, hows and whats of hands-on herbal medicine. All the different schools of herbalism are out there for your discovery if you look for them.

Writers like Kiva Rose, jim mcdonald, Chuck Garcia, Susun Weed, Matthew Wood, Michael Moore, David Hoffman, Henriette Kress. Google them. Get lost in their sites, buy their books.

I've been having a great summer; growing, tending, collecting, garbling, establishing relationships with new plants, renewing friendships with green allies I've known for years. I'm afraid I haven't picked up my camera to record a thing I've done though, because, well, it gets in the way. When I'm absorbed in my work .. I'm absorbed. When blogging about what you love changes your way of doing what you love, something's not right.

My friend Anne, a Huron Medicine Woman, used to admonish "good intentions are the purest form of bullshit". I intended to keep this blog going once summer had passed; I won't say that was bullshit, exactly, but it turns out it's not really what I want to do either.

I'll still have Medicine Plant-related posts at my other blog now and then. Those of you who don't cringe at the G-word (God) are welcome to follow me there, and I am still available by email if you need help with plant ID or have herbal medicine-related questions.

To all my readers, students and pals I've made through this blog, a great big thank-you, so long, and thanks for all the fish.


  1. You should have convinced the kid that nettles were the preferred bum-wipe, lol.

    Good message. Navigating the world of herbs is daunting.

    1. LOL Tim, he'll get his cummupance from the mullein, rest assured.

  2. I laughed so hard at Tim's comment that I almost wet my pants! If he was smart he would read the herbalists that you mentioned, as they all mention never to use mullein as TP. In the fall, I will collect some Solomon Seal root for tincture. The variegated leaf root has the same medicinal properties. All this time right under my nose and I didn't even know it. But thanks to you, I have learned a great deal!

    1. First rule of plant medicine - look down, what you need is probably right there :-)

  3. The labels for this post are hilarious!

    "...look down, what you need is probably right there :-)" ... unless you're an unfortunate prepper looking for a sheet of tp, then take your time, look around some and select wisely.

    I look forward to reading the next Garbling post on a cold winter day in January.

    A reader, student and pal.

    1. Oh that poor prepper's ears must be ringing!

      I have no idea if there will be posts after this one or not. We'll see. I'm nothing if not inconsistent!