Granny Women and Biopiracy

Copyright Jill HendersonBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

After a long, cold, snowy winter, spring is finally beginning to take hold here in the Ozarks.  A quick walk through woods or meadows reveals rising sap in the trees and swelling buds of flowers and leaves.  In the garden, Nature’s slow wakening from the Great Sleep is most evident in the growing carpet of chickweed and henbit along the garden edges and the first leaves of dandelion popping out of the barely-green grass.  Many people consider these plants to be pesky weeds, but for wild foragers and herbalists, these “weeds” represent some of nature’s finest edibles and medicinals.

Indeed, any pioneer housewife worth her salt would have been in hog heaven to find as lovely a patch of chickweed as the one growing on the edge of our garden. She would have collected the fresh, crisp leaves and stems before the blooms opened and made a soothing salve for the itchy rashes and bites that would come soon enough.   As one of the first edible greens to appear outside of cultivation, chickweed was, and still is, relished as a nourishing addition to the dinner plate.  You can read more about chickweed in my previous article Weeds That Heal: Chickweed.

By Ivy Main (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsThere was a time no so long ago when rural folks sought out these and many other healthful spring plants. Some were eaten as vegetables, while others were used to make teas and tonics to help rejuvenate their bodies after a long winter without fresh greens. Every person raised in the country knew which plants were good for food and most had some knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs to treat all manner of injury or illness. On the few occasions that the pioneer family needed the help of a skilled healer, they could often call on an elder herbalist known as a granny woman.

In the early days of settlement these women were often the closest thing that most rural folks ever got to a doctor – in fact, they generally were the doctors. They were also herbalists, veterinarians, midwives and fortune tellers whose skills with native plants and herbs have become legendary. These women would come when called and work tirelessly for little more than a gift in kind.

Today, most of us will never know the depth of the wisdom passed down through generation upon generation of granny women, but there are still a few elders that can remember a time when a granny woman came to care for a family member or to attend the birth of a baby. It is unfortunate that these memories are the last of a cultural heritage whose enormity and scope will be lost to the following generations forever.

The good news is that some of that information still survives – sifting slowly through the nooks and crannies of time. Today there are new granny women taking up where our ancestors left off and trying as they might to catch up. These new healers strive to learn more about the many medicinal and nutritious benefits that wild plants have to offer mankind and after many decades of persistence, they are finally being recognized by the modern medical establishment.

Yet even as we make huge strides towards sustainability and natural healing and lose our fear of the ‘wild’ things – hordes of scientists from biotech firms and chemical manufacturers are lurking in the woods searching for plants that might bring them the next billion dollar pharmaceutical drug or the next wave of patented plant genes for industrial agriculture.

While today’s natural healers and wild foragers are happy to share their knowledge with others for very little personal gain, these big corporations want to patent life forms – not to help mankind as they profess – but for their own selfish gain and monetary enrichment.  I cringe to think that one day Monsanto might own the patent on such common plants as the watercress that grows in the spring branch, or the wild onion in the meadow, or the lowly chickweed in my garden.

Ironically, the greatest hope for combating the biopiracy of our native flora is to follow the example of the old Granny Women and today’s modern herbalists and foragers by learning to identify and use the weeds and wild plants that have been put on this earth by our Creator and lay claim to the rights of all of humanity to use them for the betterment of mankind.

If you are interested in the patenting of life forms, check out my personal She-ro, Vandana Shiva, in this short, but eye-opening video.

© 2014 Jill Henderson – Feel free to share with a link back to this site. Thanks.

A Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore

Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.

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9 responses to “Granny Women and Biopiracy

  1. Great article, Jill. When we first moved to the NW AR Ozarks, in early spring, we were curious to see women digging along the roadsides and in open lots and pastures – finally stopped to ask a lady, and from the pungent aroma coming from her walmart bag, we knew she was digging up ramps or spring onions.
    It was common for us to see foragers searching for greens, roots, berries and nuts throughout the year.
    Enjoy this sunshine today

    • Thank you, Kathleen! That must have been an incredible experience! 🙂 I think there are still many people in the Ozarks that still practice the age-old tradition of wild foraging – keeping it alive for future generations.

  2. Jill, I think this may well be one of your most important columns, ever. Good job….

  3. Wonderful post, Jill. I am sad to have missed out on a generational transfer of knowledge. Even though I was raised by my great-grandmother, she was among many women who embraced the conveniences of post-WWII foodways. However, I’m thrilled to report I have a number of girlfriends who are becoming well-versed in herbal plants, vegetables, and midwifery. They always go out to the mountains or the Pacific Northwest to get training though. I’ve heard of a somewhat related wilderness survival course in the Ozarks, but do you know of any places a person could go to learn these things you’re talking about?

    One last thing — Dr. Shiva is going to be in Kansas City next month!

  4. Thanks, Tina! You aren’t alone. There are so many who missed out on that transfer of knowledge – myself included. I learned many things from my grandparents and parents, but urbanization had settled in pretty hard by the time I came along. Thankfully, my folks are pretty down to earth and we spent quite a bit of time in the great outdoors and they always grew a garden and mom canned.

    But there are places the Ozarks where you can go to learn various skills and knowledge from others. Start by checking out the groups on Facebook, including Village Herbalists, Ozark Area Gardeners, Missouri Native Plant Society, Wild Edibles of Missouri, Ozark Mountain Herbalists, and the Missouri Mycological Society. Here you can pose questions, find local events and connect with others who simply want to keep learning. You can also friend me on FB and I will do my best to connect you with the folks I know…

    And yes, Vandana Shiva will be in KC! Will you be there, too? We’ve already got our tickets and I can’t wait. She is my She-ro!

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