Today I’m thinking about relationships. Not the kind I have with my parents or my siblings or the lucky guys I fall in love with—not even the kind I have with my adorable and somewhat crazed 5 month-old puppy.
No. Today I’m thinking about my relationship with plants. (Insert wry witticism re: Colorado’s Prop 64 here.)
Ethnobotanists make their careers thinking about these relationships. In a recent Wall Street Journal article I learned about one ethnobotanist in particular who is on a mission to rehabilitate and preserve these relationships. Dr. Michael Balick told the Journal, "Our knowledge of how people have used these plants for so many generations is being forgotten."
One project was to catalog the plant life on a small island in Micronesia called Pohnpei. During his 10 years in Pohnpei Dr. Balick and his team interviewed more than 150 people, recording traditional plant-based remedies for common ailments—from taro juice to heal open wounds and drops from the roots of a flower to treat conjunctivitis to the juice of a sakau plant to treat chronic anxiety.
Lisa Bannon of the Wall Street Journal wrote: “In many cases, Dr. Balick said, traditional plant remedies can be more effective than the Western drugs that have replaced them. Raw, unbleached coconut oil rubbed on the body is a great mosquito repellent, he discovered in the island of Palau. Likewise, tea made by the people of Pohnpei from a guava plant is an effective treatment for diarrhea.”
When Dr. Balick arrived in 1997 young islanders had traded out their traditional diet of taro, bananas, and fish for soda, rice, alcohol, and canned foods. Predictably rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes began to rise.
Get closer to your plants
Sounds familiar. Something similar happened here in the U.S. when our small family farms were overrun by huge monocrop farming conglomerates cranking out cheap, nutritionally poor ingredients for use in cheap, processed foods. As a nation, and for generations now, we've lost our connection to the land, to our food, and to our health. But this old news and I'm preaching to the choir.
So what if I had a better relationship with my plants? Not just the peace lily I’m currently killing or the jade that, based on its unusual growth pattern, seems to be trying to run away from me. But a better understanding of the plants in my environment—the ones I use often and the ones I haven’t even met yet.
This past spring I was intensely proud of myself for accurately identifying an errant squash growing wild in a friend’s backyard. Don’t laugh, this was a big moment for me. And it would be for many Americans who wouldn’t know the difference between sage and rosemary, or cucumbers and peas until the plant takes on the form they see in the grocery store.
How many natural remedies do I walk past on my way to work? What succulent snacks am I ignoring on the trails? And, to echo the wonderings of my new favorite ethnobotanist, “why we are consuming only a handful of the 3,000 recorded edible species?”
Why indeed, Dr. Balick.