By 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.
There 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.
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.