Thursday, 10 January 2019

Learning to ID plants: the tried and true vs apps & the internet

'Apps' for everything, even meditation .. follow the link if you dare. I don't think I've ever seen a a sillier insult to the ancient wisdom of meditation - or to the intelligence of the 'consumer' (there's that word again!) - than that one.

And people who should know better, like the ever-annoying "functional medicine" guru Chris Kesser, actually promote such nonsense with a straight face.

When he links to that (particularly hateful) meditation app even as he recommends that his readers reduce their usage of technology, should we take it as irony? Or lip-service? I can't tell the difference any more.

The problem with these apps isn't just that they're there to suck the consumer into signing up for yet another something they don't need (which is what they really are, money or personal information grabbers), it's that people believe there's something to them. (Although it boggles the mind that anyone would).

And so the downright dangerous 'dumbing down' process continues apace.

Such technology makes people less than they could be, giving them the easy way to learn something that (in the case of meditation) is supposed to be challenging. Yet people love them; apps allow the consumer to (they believe) get more done in the space of a day. Because that's the goal, right? To get more done?

Which brings me to the obsession with multitasking, which if you ask me is a crime against the human spirit.

No wonder people have to be taught about 'mindfulness'; they've rarely experienced what it feels like to be fully immersed in a task .. or go for a walk .. or do any one thing at a time simply for the sake of the doing rather than lusting for results.

Your spirit doesn't care how many steps your app says you took out there on your walk, what did you see? What did you smell on the breeze? Did you notice that crow showing off his acrobatic flight moves above your head, or stop to laugh at the scolding squirrel? Did you listen to the birdsong or did the buds in your ears keep you from hearing their melodies?

But who cares about the human spirit any more?

So-called "health apps", like the period tracker I ranted about elsewhere are a case in point of technology removing us ever further from the experience of being human. There's a period tracking app built into the sky, by the way, it's called the moon. If it's not possible for you to see the moon from where you live that's a bad sign and you should probably move, but you can always buy a calendar - a paper one - and use a pen to .. oh never mind.

Yeah, just never mind. This post is going nowhere but ever tightening circles. I hate apps - you get the point - but more importantly I hate laziness, and that's what apps really do is encourage laziness and dependence.

But I digress, let's revisit that rant another day.

Most of what I write about on this blog can only be understood first hand, but most people just don't do first hand any more. I'm no expert and I'm not a licensed clinician, so this isn't a 'health blog' as such, it's simply one woman sharing her hands-on experiences in the hopes that others might find it useful as they, too, live their hands-on lives.

That's the tradition of the ages, after all, the passing on of experience from one human being to another.

Experience, not theory - what can you do with theory? You can't bind a wound or ease a cough with theory.

Humans share their experiences. One human takes the experience of another, tries their method, tweaks it to work for them. That's how knowledge advances. And as that knowledge becomes tradition, it becomes wisdom. There is no app for that.

And so it is that I encourage anyone who wants to learn to identify plants for food or medicine to learn from another human, out there in the field or forest. You can always find someone, if you try, and there's nothing wrong with hiring a guide - wildcrafters gotta pay the rent too. "Apps", used in the field or forest, are the very antipathy of what Underground Medicine is all about.

If there is no one to teach you, then follow the old tradition; that of going for a walk and poking about with a sense of wonder.

If you want to expand your ability to learn, then leave the device at home. 

Instead, commit the experience of being with the plants to memory!

Feel the shape and texture of the stem, sniff the flowers, count the petals, pay attention to the shape, texture and arrangement of the leaves. Take notice of the environment it's growing in - forest or meadow, wet or dry, rocky, sandy or rich soil. Is it growing in a colony or is there some pattern to the spacing of the plants? Look up - are there trees above? Are they leafy (deciduous) or do they have needles (coniferous)?

Sometimes it doesn't matter if you know the name or uses of each plant you come across. Just to step out of your usual experience and into their world is enough.

Then, when you're stirred to connect your world with theirs, you can begin to carry a notebook - not a fucking iPad, an actual paper notebook - and make notes of all of the above. Then take a clipping of the plant that intrigues you and bring it home for further study, checking with your field guide and/or other reference material. Press your clipping, in the old fashioned way, in tissue paper between the pages of a large heavy book, then attach that, with your notes about the plant, in your field notebook, or a larger, more permanent one.

Do this with one plant at a time.

Yes, really.

You can always go back another day for the other ones that caught your eye.

The point of all this activity is that when we engage our senses (touch the plant, smell it), our brains remember more than when we just look, take a picture and compare it to another image. There's also the very real problem that most apps - and even books - will only show the plant from one angle, or give only a close-up of the flower. It's maddeningly difficult to identify plants that way. No wonder people give up!

Once in a while my readers and I play a game called "name that weed", wherein they send me photos of plants they've come across and I try to figure out what they are. Very often I have to ask them to take more pics, with their hand or foot in the frame to give me some perspective on the size of the plant, or take a shot closer in so I can see the shape of the stem. If I'm an old hand at this and I have trouble id'ing a plant from a snapshot, what chance does someone new to the game have? Little. Apps may look like they'll be helpful and sometimes they may be, but they're best used alongside other sources.

The best of the herbal books give detailed descriptions of the plants in words, especially if the writer is aware of the Doctrine of Signatures. It's essential that you learn the terms of the trade - any good field guide will teach you the difference between alternate leaves and opposite, and what a petiole is. Often books with good line drawings will give you a better idea of the structure of a plant than photographs will, and if you have any artistic talent, sketching your finds in your notebook is a very good idea.

Books, rather than websites or apps, also have the advantage of having been vetted by a publisher, so you're less likely to get incorrect information like the following ..

I was having a look-see around the site of an herb company that comes highly recommended by one of my readers, Starwest Botanicals and wandered over into the bulk herb section, where I clicked on St John'swort.

Now, I must point out that whether or not any company supplies good quality dried St. John'swort is almost moot, since St. J is an herb best used fresh; infused in an oil or made into a tincture (from fresh plant material). In a pinch one could make tea from the dried herb but it's not ideal (nor would it taste very good).

That aside, here's the problem I found in this particular blurb about St John'swort. They identified it as Hypericum perforatum yet described the plant thusly:

"The plant, which is a small deciduous shrub, bears lovely bright yellow flowers followed by small red fruits."

And that's incorrect!

Hypericum perforatum is an herbaceous perennial, not a deciduous shrub, and it does not form fruits.

What they've described is another member of the Hypericum family, Hypericum androsaemum. While it is known in landscaping and gardening circles (sometimes) as St John'swort, it is not the same plant as we use in herbal medicine.

So this begs the question, which one are they actually selling as a dried herb, the perforatum or the androsaemum?

My concern is also that someone like my sister-in-law, who grows the androsaemum, might, on the basis of that description, make the potentially serious error of using her shrub to make a tincture, with unknown results. Now, while it's unlikely (one hopes) that anyone would use a description in a blurb such as the above for id-ing a plant, it still matters.

And how was the error not caught by the company? They must have hired a non-herbalist to write their blurbs. I'll still take my reader at his word when he says they're good suppliers, but this sort of thing makes me queasy. It really does.

(Yes, I did write and inform them of the error but no, they haven't responded to me or changed the blurb at the time of writing this post. UPDATE - 1/18/2019 - I just got a friendly email from Starwest Botanicals thanking me for catching the error and letting me know they'd be correcting it. YAY! See? If you see something, you have to say something.)

All of this to bring home the point that it's important that your resource books (or apps, or websites, if you insist on using them) are specifically designed for identifying medicinal herbs and that you learn to recognize the Latin binomial names as easily as you do the common names, otherwise trouble may come your way.

And even then, as we can see from the above, errors can be made. Hence my insistence that you use 3 sources, minimum, before you go believing that you know what a plant is and how to use it.

And the more time you spend out there where the plants are, getting to know them throughout the seasons, the better.

After all, it's one thing to know what the fruit of a wild raspberry looks like, another to recognize the plant when it's young, before it flowers or sets fruit, so you can gather the leaves to use as a womb supporting tea for your pregnant daughter or a mouthwash for your own sore gums. It's handy to know what burdock looks like before it flowers, otherwise you've missed the window for digging up those roots you really wanted.

As I've mentioned before, I generally take a couple of years getting to know a plant where it lives and researching it in the literature before I use it. That is not always the case and it won't always be necessary for you, either, but there's no rush, you know.

No hurry.

Of note -  I see there is a new book out, called Backyard Medicine For All by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal. One of the best books I know of for the beginner and old hand alike is their first, Backyard Medicine so I'm going to go out on a limb and recommend you look into them both.

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