Podcast 195: How To See Stress In Wild Plants

Yellow leaves, undeveloped fruit, long “leggy” stems between the leaf nodes – these are some of the key signs of a plant under stress. But if you’ve never met this species before, you might not know something’s off! Other signs are not so visible, and require you to know the plant stand for a season or a full year before you can see them. The point here is this: both observation and patience are needful to accurately assess the stress load of a plant, stand, or ecosystem.

Taking the time to get to know these indicators, and to steward the land you gather from, will make you a better herbalist. Whether you’re a wildcrafter, grower, clinician, product maker, or any other type of herbalist, patient observation and adaptive response are key skills, and they transfer smoothly from one domain to the others.

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Episode Transcript

Katja (00:14):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:16):
And we’re here at Commonwealth Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:20):
And on the internet everywhere, thanks to the power of the podcast. Yes. Well, so last time we promised that we were back to a weekly schedule. And that was definitely exactly one week ago. I’m sure of it. Let’s not check the calendars. Let’s continue on.

Katja (00:34):
Let’s continue on. You know, I’m not actually certain that we promised a weekly schedule. I believe we promised a regular schedule. Listen, there’s boxes and bags and the packing is…

Ryn (00:49):
The vacuums are getting a workout.

Katja (00:51):
Yeah. That’s for sure.

Ryn (00:52):
The knees are getting a workout. It’s great, yeah. We’re doing it.

Katja (00:55):
Moving day is September 26th. We’re super excited. But before that happens, we want to share more stuff with you. We want to continue this series on the impacts of climate change on us as herbalists, and the plants, and the tools that we’re working with.

Ryn (01:14):
Yeah. So, today’s topic is going to be about how given the impacts of climate change, we need to change our expectations and our habits around harvesting herbs from the wild – wildcrafting. And it’s really critical that we pay attention to how plant populations are holding up to these stresses. Whether that’s drought or flooding or both alternating throughout the year. And heat and cold at strange times and all kinds of things, right? So, it’s best to harvest only the plants which are abundant and are thriving. And to let the stressed plants rest.

Katja (01:49):
That’s like a tongue twister.

Ryn (01:50):
Let the stressed rest. Yeah. All right.

Katja (01:55):
Yeah. Anyway, I mean, that sounds all really easy, right? Like obviously if there’s a plant population that’s under stress, then we won’t harvest them this year. And if there’s a plant population that’s thriving, then woohoo. We can work with them. But the thing is that a lot of herbalists maybe don’t have a ton of gardening experience. Or maybe they do, but they don’t have a lot of wild plant experience. And there is nothing wrong with that. A lot of people love plants and live in places where they can’t really have a garden. And a lot of people live in places where they could have a garden, but they just haven’t gotten to that yet. It just hasn’t been the thing yet. So, my point here is that you may have a lot of knowledge about how to work with herbs to help people and not have a lot of knowledge about the growth cycle of the plants themselves, and what they look like at every stage, and what it looks like when that plant is healthy, and what it looks like when that plant is having a hard time. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you a bad herbalist. Just like herbalism is a really broad, deep field of study. And so if you’re like oh man, I don’t really know how to identify that in a plant. Then there is absolutely no connotation there that you might not be a good herbalist. The only thing that means is just that you haven’t gotten to this particular part of it yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But we want to talk about ways that you can tell. Maybe you haven’t gotten to this yet. Well, let’s get to it now. We’re going to really go through and think about what are the signs of stress in plants. And not just in an individual plant, but also in a whole group of plants. Maybe you have a group of plants where each individual plant looks like it’s doing okay, but the group is exhibiting stress signs. So, all those things, all the secret decoder ring ways of seeing those signs are what we’re going to talk about today.

Ryn (04:04):
Yeah. But before we get into that, just a quick little moment of self-promotion if you don’t mind. We want to make sure that all of our listeners know that we have an online herb school, where you can learn herbalism at your own pace on your own schedule. We have courses for students at all levels, from absolute beginners to clinical herbalist. And you can find all of it at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Katja (04:27):
You know, I want to share. Our school has a dedicated community space where students can chat together without having to be on social media. You know, like a lot of people use dedicated Facebook groups or something like that. But we just wanted to not involve social media at all. So, we have this community space. And after the last podcast episode, one student posted about being an accidental plant hoarder and got really excited about swapping plants that they had too much of. Because the first time that they ordered, they didn’t really know how much was too much or just enough. Or they were like I don’t know. I guess I need a pound of marshmallow leaf. That seems right. And maybe that was way too much for them or whatever. So, we’ve got all sorts of swapping going on in the community space. In fact, we have a special area just dedicated to student swaps. So that if you ordered a pound of peppermint. And it turns out that you, like me, don’t actually like peppermint. Then you can swap with somebody who maybe has a pound of something that they didn’t love, but that you do or whatever. So, you can find our community space at online.commonwealthherbs.com. There’s just a link at the top that says community. Just click it. And that way, if you’re feeling inspired by all this to trade some of your stash, then you can do it there. All of it, our courses, our community space, everything you’ll find at online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Ryn (06:03):
All right. And even though today we’re going to be talking more about plant health than about human health, we still want to give you our reclaimer. That’s where we remind you that we’re not doctors. We’re herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (06:14):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the U.S. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only.

Ryn (06:26):
We want to remind you that good health doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. Good health doesn’t exist as an objective standard. It’s influenced by your individual needs, experiences, and goals. So, keep in mind that we’re not attempting to present a single dogmatic right way of doing herbalism that you should adhere to.

Katja (06:42):
Everybody’s body is different. So, the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you. But we hope that they’ll give you some new information to think about and some ideas to research further.

Ryn (06:53):
Finding your way to better health is both your right and your own personal responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re alone on the journey. And it doesn’t mean that you’re to blame for your current state of health. But it does mean that the final decision when you’re considering any course of action, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by a physician, is always your choice to make. All right, let’s talk about plants and stress. And how do we see it? What do we look for?

Plants Have Agency

Katja (07:18):
How do we see it? Well, you know, I want to think about this in several different terms. And the first one that I want to think about is the plants’ life cycle. Because, you know, plants are living beings just like humans. I mean, they don’t walk around. But otherwise, you know, they have goals. They have to do lists. They have schedules. They have all that kind of stuff. And you know, I feel like a lot of people think a lot about animal life. And then they don’t really think about plant life in the same terms. Just because plants are rooted in space, or because they don’t have eyelashes, or I don’t know, like whatever. That somehow that means that they’re not as alive. But they are. And they want to reproduce. That is a thing.

Ryn (08:16):
Ascribing agency here. It’s complicated. But I think that it’s – what do you say – a directionally accurate metaphor?

Katja (08:24):
I think that it’s warranted. I really do. The more that we learn about plants, and their senses, and their ability to respond to their environment, and whatever else. I mean, I didn’t need all that. I’m satisfied with their living creatures, right? Like that was enough for me.

Ryn (08:38):
Right. And then yeah, every time we see a study or a news report or whatever. Where it’s like scientists now believe that plants may react to damage with information transfer, which could be interpreted as pain. And we’re like well, okay. Yeah, you know, you hack at the tree. And then it oozes some resin to try to seal the wound. And you know, yeah, it has to respond somehow.

Katja (09:03):
And that they communicate with each other inside of their communities, and also in their broader ecosystem, and all kinds of things. So, I want to be clear. And plants have jobs in their ecosystems also. Some plants are soil remediators, and some plants are defenders of a particular space. I’m thinking about poison ivy here.

Ryn (09:27):
Yeah. Early succession plants that are going to hold the soil together, so that something that has deeper roots can get settled and establish itself.

Katja (09:35):
And to prevent erosion and stuff like that. Some plants help filter toxins out of water areas. Some plants help pull toxins out of dirt, like soil areas.

Ryn (09:48):
And you can look for that kind of agency, or that kind of responsiveness on many different scales. you can look at an individual organism, and you can find indications. Or you can look at the ecosystem as a whole in the way that that’s kind of moving and reshaping itself over time. The same way that your gut flora change depending on your diet.

Katja (10:07):
Yeah, sure. So, I’m going to focus here in terms of reproduction, because that is one of the ways that we get information about how healthy a plant is. But I just want to be super clear that I don’t want to reduce plants and plant lives down to they sprout. They grow. They create seeds for the next generation. They die. That’s the end of it.

Ryn (10:34):
Maybe there are some fruits that I can get along the way. Because I need some food for myself.

Katja (10:39):
Yeah. As if there was no other kind of agency involved in this. Because plants actually have whole complex social lives that is really fantastic. More on this with the book What a Plant Knows. And I think there’s a new version out.

Ryn (10:58):
Yeah. There was an updated edition, I think. Second edition or something like that came out just recently.

Katja (11:04):
And also all of the work of Peter Wohlleben, whose first book out, I think, was the Secret Life of Trees, but he’s had other ones after that. And also, I think we could include the Spell of the Sensuous in here as well, even though that is not specifically about plant life. It is about the interconnectivity of life in general. Okay. So, we all are going to accept that plants have way more going on in their lives than just reproduction, but right now I’m going to focus on reproduction. So, just like humans when any life is stressed out, then the reproductive cycle is off. And the way that that looks in a menstruating human, for example, is that maybe your cycle gets too long or too short or just disappears all together. Or maybe you’re still having a cycle, but you’re not able to conceive. Which you might not know, unless you were specifically trying to do that. But there’s different ways that we would see this. Maybe your cycle is instead of absent, it is like way too much. You’re just bleeding and bleeding and bleeding way more than is comfortable and way more than is necessary. So, when we think about the signs of stress in terms of menstruation, we’re pretty familiar with those. You know, I mean, we menstruating humans are pretty familiar with those. But we can ask y’all to imagine that.

Ryn (12:44):
To learn about it, so that we can understand and empathize and take helpful actions like bringing warm things or cool things or whatever.

Katja (12:52):
Yes. And chocolate.

Ryn (12:53):
For the individual, right. Not just for the fact.

Considering Reproductive Success

Katja (12:56):
Yes. But so we see this in plant life as well. And if we think about the reproductive aspects of a plant, it’s the flower. And it’s sort of like stress can happen way before the point of the flower. But this is a place where you’re likely to notice it, simply because flowers are showy. Normally you see them. So, if you have an idea in your mind about calendula, for example. You can just imagine what a calendula flower looks like. And maybe you can also imagine what a whole calendula plant looks like. And if you’re not familiar, don’t worry. The Google is familiar, so you can ask Google to show you – or any other search, you know, DuckDuckGo is a good one – to show you calendula flowers and calendula plants in bloom. And you can see that there are many successions of many flowers. Calendula is a really prolific plant. And it has flowers that are blooming and at their peak. And at the same time, it has little buds that are going to bloom later. And once it gets going, it also has seed heads that are the past flowers, and the seeds are developing inside there. And you can expect from a healthy calendula plant that there might be 5 or 8 or 10 blooms at peak at any given time. And then however many of the other stages of either seed heads developing, because that flower has been pollinated, and the flower has passed. And now the baby, the seeds is developing. Or the buds that haven’t opened yet, and that are getting ready to bloom and be pollinated and create seeds.

Katja (15:02):
So, you can consider all that. And then you can look at any given calendula plant around you. You can look at the ones in my garden, for example. Now, right now we knew we were moving this summer. And so we didn’t plant our garden. We just let it plant itself, seed itself. And we just committed to working with the volunteers in the garden, which was great. We got tons and tons of plants, and we got some calendula. But last year we had some weird weather, and the calendula had trouble. And this year we had some weird weather, and the calendula had trouble. And by trouble what I mean is any given plant is much smaller and has like one bloom at a time. Now let me tell you that one bloom is gorgeous. They’re absolutely beautiful.

Ryn (15:58):
The color’s nice, yeah.

Katja (15:59):
Yeah. And the petals all look right, and they’re not eaten up by bugs or whatever. They don’t have weird folds or crimps in the petals. And the color is beautiful, but there’s only one at a time.

Ryn (16:13):
Yeah. This is a good point to raise, because if you were just like oh, we have to look for the beautiful flowers, right? Obviously, you don’t want to get the ones that have an entire family of wasps living in them, or they have some sort of grayish, green slime that’s growing out of it. Obviously, you wouldn’t pick that. But I think that stopping there and saying is the flower beautiful, and resonance, and has a smell or a color or whatever else that I’m looking for from this species. That might not actually be the end of your search.

Katja (16:44):
Right. And in the case of these specific plants, yes, they are resonance. Yes, they check all of the boxes of exactly what you’re looking for in a calendula flower. It’s just that there’s only one instead of 5 or 6 or 8 or 10. And then when we look at the blooms who are waiting to open, there’s 2 instead of 20. And so, that is one way when we’re looking at the reproductive cycle. If we were talking about something like raspberries or blackberries, that would be a little bit easier to imagine. Because maybe you don’t notice the flowers. But when it came to be time for the fruit, you know what a raspberry is supposed to look like, and you know what a blackberry is supposed to look like. And when they’re under stress, they don’t look right. You know how in a raspberry there’s each individual little red balloon, and then inside that is a little seed, right? And it’s like a whole bunch of balloons.

Ryn (17:48):
99 perhaps?

Katja (17:50):
There’s 99 of them. Yes, absolutely.

Ryn (17:52):
99 red balloons per raspberry. Awesome. Okay.

Katja (17:56):
So, you can imagine that, and then imagine a raspberry that isn’t looking very awesome. Many of those balloons never inflated. And so instead you see like a little grayish kind of nub that is where the seed would’ve been, but no balloon inflated around the seed. And therefore the seed was never really able to develop either. So, you can imagine what that looks like on a fruit. It looks the same kind of way on calendula in terms of there just isn’t enough development.

Ryn (18:34):
Nice. Cool. So, yeah, and that could also be a question of timing. So, not whether the development got to complete itself, or whether it was kind of halted in the middle, or wasn’t as abundant as we would expect. But also if it’s super early. Or if it’s hasn’t happened yet, and it’s getting kind of late. And oh, when’s the next frost, or when’s the first frost going to happen?

Weather, Wildlife, & Other Worries

Katja (18:56):
Right. And then kill everything before it has a chance. That can happen because maybe your spring was fine. Maybe your spring was climatically all the things that the plant wanted. And then there was a point where a drought hit. And that caused the plant to sort of hunker down and not develop at all. And then it got moving towards fall, and some rain started happening again. And so suddenly the plant is like okay, okay. I can develop now. And it’s kind of a race with the clock at that point, of the plant trying to complete its development and create the seeds for the next year, before the frost sets in that will kill that process. That will stop that process.

Ryn (19:42):
Sometimes that could be why you have a plant and it sort of looks like itself, but everything’s really squashed together and in miniature, maybe. Like you think aren’t you usually twice as tall or something like that?

Katja (19:55):
Yeah. Another thing that can cause a plant to be too small is wildlife’s pressure, you know? So, if somebody’s coming in and nibbling on that plant regularly. I’m thinking about something like self-heal. A self-heal plant in a happy spot could be a foot tall, actually. It can be 18 inches tall, believe it or not. But if it’s under stress, because animals keep coming by and nibbling, then it’s going to only be like two or three inches off the ground. And it’s going to have everything be very compact. All the leaves will be really dense. The stem will be short and then the flower. And it’s trying to get through its whole reproductive cycle before it gets eaten again.

Ryn (20:45):
Yeah. And that could be animals, or it could be lawnmowers. There’s a bunch of places. And I was taking Elsie for a walk in the park earlier. And there’s a bunch of fields and areas there where it’s actually carpeted in self-heal. But you can only kind of see it when you’re right on top of it. Because they’re really low, and they’re surrounded by grass. And so if you get several feet away, the angle doesn’t let you really see the purple until you’re sort of standing in the middle of it. Which is really kind of beautiful in a way. But I think also they might like to not get mowed quite so often.

Katja (21:14):
Yeah. I think so. I think so. This can happen in the opposite direction. You can have a plant that is too tall .and there’s like too much space in between each set of leaves. And often gardeners will refer to that as leggy.

Ryn (21:37):
Our sage got leggy this year.

Katja (21:38):
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Or like the cilantro is leggy. And so it just means that there is a lot of stalk and not that much leaf. And usually when a plant is very tall like that it is not really getting the light that it wants.

Ryn (21:56):
This could be a plant where maybe it’s four feet tall, but it has 12 leaf nodes up that height of stem. Where what it should have is still to be that tall but have like 20 or some other number.

Katja (22:12):
Yeah. Many more leaves. So, what’s going on in that case is that the plant is not getting the light that it wants. And it’s literally trying to stretch itself out so that it can move out from under the shade or whatever to try to capture more sun.

Ryn (22:30):
Sometimes you’ll even find that the lower leaves on that plant will have died and turned brown. We have a bunch of fleabane in the backyard that’s kind of doing that right now, in part because of the dryness stress that it’s under. But also from a little bit of crowding, and there’s not a lot of light for the lower leaves. And so the plant says I don’t need to keep these alive. I’ve got to divert my resources upwards to where I’m going to have my seeds and everything.

Katja (22:58):
You know, actually that is a really good pattern to talk about, because there are a lot of different reasons that the leaves close to the ground can yellow or brown or die. And they can reflect different things. Now listen, sometimes it’s just completely normal. Like you said, a very dense crowd of mugwort or fleabane or somebody. Yeah, the lower leaves, like when they were first starting to grow those lower leaves all were getting sun. But as the plant got taller and taller and taller, it kind of made it so that the sun wasn’t getting down to those lower leaves anymore. And so they died back. That’s not necessarily a problem, because they have sort of served their purpose. So, if you come across plants, and just the first three or four leaves at the bottom have died back or they’re yellowing, that’s actually fine if that’s the only problem. And simply because the job of those leaves was to make a bunch of food, so that you could grow some more stem and grow some more leaf and get taller. They did their job. It’s okay. When that’s not okay is… Actually we have a great example of this right now. We have some evening primrose. And I didn’t realize how good a year it was going to be for evening primrose. And I was worried that I wasn’t going to have enough seed to take with us to the new house to seed in the garden, to make sure that we had evening primroses there. And so in the beginning of the year I dug up a couple of plants of evening primrose and just put them in one of those fabric planting bags. And I was like great. This way I know at least I’ll have three evening primrose plants. I’ll let them go to seed. I’ll have that much seed to take with me when we move. It’ll be great. Well I put that fabric bag on the edge of a sidewalk in our yard. And so it’s getting a lot of sun, and we had a bunch of drought. It has southern exposure.

Katja (25:13):
Now listen, that’s normally fine for evening primrose. Evening primrose doesn’t mind a lot of sun. But the combination of that sidewalk, the drought, and the fabric bag. Fabric planting bags are fantastic, but you do have to water them more often. And I did not really water much through the drought. And so if you look at those plants right now, they have almost no leaves at all. They have sacrificed. First off, they’re shorter than they normally would be. But they have sacrificed like three quarters of their leaves. And there are only leaves up at the tippy top where the flowers and the developing seed pods are. And that is exactly the same as like a person who’s pregnant, and they start to lose their hair, and they start to get a bunch of cavities.

Ryn (26:08):
Oh no.

Katja (26:09):
No, it’s exactly the same thing. It is the body taking minerals from you to use in the development of that fetus. And kind of like your body is stealing from itself to provide for the next generation. And plants will do this too. And so the plant is sacrificing all those leaves. Which yes, that means that the plant’s not going to be able to make as much energy to complete the reproductive cycle. But on the other hand, it doesn’t have to feed all those leaves either. So, it loses the leaves from the bottom up more and more and more. And so now we have these evening primrose plants who really only have… They look like Dr. Seuss plants, really. They just have like a tuft at the very top, and the whole stem is leafless.

Ryn (27:02):
The flowers are still really pretty though.

Katja (27:04):
The flowers are still great. They are developing their seed pods. There are a bunch of other evening primrose that popped up around in the meantime. And so I’m no longer concerned that I won’t have enough seed. And I did finally realize and say oh my goodness. How did I get so busy? I need to water these primrose. So, I do think that they’re going to end up being okay and developing good seed. But on the other hand – I’ll let you know next spring – I am going to separate that seed from the other plants that didn’t have quite as hard of a time. And I’m going to check the germination rate of that seed. And my prediction is that it won’t be as high as other plants that weren’t under as much stress. Because those plants, the plants that lost all their leaves, they didn’t have as much to put into the development of those seeds. And so yeah, some of them are probably not going to germinate. Probably more than the like normal amount of… You know, I mean with seeds there’s always a few that are duds, right? That’s normal. But there’s also like an expected kind of normal percentage that don’t germinate. And I think that these plants are going to produce a larger percentage that won’t germinate.

Bugs, Immunity, & Chemical Transformations

Ryn (28:21):
Yeah. Right. Well, you know, I’m thinking of some other plants and other types of growth where they might have a problem that shows up when they’re trying to make fruit, but it just never quite ripens fully. Maybe it just seems to remain… It’s something you’re expecting to get at least a hint of sweetness, but it just remains as sour and astringent as you can possibly imagine. And you’re like oh, just a few more days and it’s going to change. And then sometimes it’ll kind of go past that day. And then now they’re just rotting.

Katja (28:55):
Yes. It’s like leaves you expect in the fall. Okay. Now listen, we live in New England. So, depending on where you live, this might not be true. But for us, you know, every fall we expect to have like all the pretty colors and whatever. But depending on what the weather was like over the summer, then the leaves will vary in their splendor. But I grew up in Texas. And in Texas it was like one day all the leaves are green. Tomorrow they are all brown and on the ground, all of them at the same time. And there was never any… We had like this huge maple tree in our backyard, and there was never any color that happened. It was just like one day green, the next day brown and on the ground. So yeah, you can have that in the fruit too. Where you’re like ah, I’m going to have so many tomatoes. And then none of them actually… They just didn’t do it.

Ryn (29:54):
Right. Well, and then there’s other signs of stress that you probably wouldn’t mistake it. But if the plant or if a large portion of a stand of plants is being extensively attacked by some kind of insects, then that’s a problem. And again, try to see the whole field. Try to see the whole board there. Because you might say to yourself well, on this side of the stand these ones are fine. There are no mites crawling on this particular specimen. I’m going to grab this one and take it. Okay maybe, but…

Katja (30:27):
But they’re all over there, and they’re like marching towards… yeah. Moving at the speed of whatever that kind of bug is. We’ve had students who ask and say like oh, how do I get all these aphids off my whatever. And I usually say don’t. Just don’t even try. Don’t harvest it. If you are growing something, and it is just covered in bugs, don’t harvest it. When a plant is having trouble with bugs, that means that the plant isn’t healthy. So, plants have immune systems just like humans have immune systems. And that’s part of the reason why plants can help us with our immune system work that we need to do. Plants have to fend off attacks from bacteria and viruses and molds and fungus and bugs, just like we do. And so when you see a bunch of bugs all over a plant, what that means is that that plant is immunocompromised. That plant is not successfully holding off the attackers. It’s not creating the phytochemicals that it uses inside its body to fight off things that are trying to attack it. We have those same kinds of chemicals. They’re not phytochemicals. They’re like, I don’t know, human chemicals. But we have those same kinds of things inside our bodies that help fight against invasion. And not everything is the same. I mean, plants don’t raise a fever exactly. On the other hand, they do produce more and more of like very heating essential oil content.

Ryn (32:14):
Sure. Right. Or they turn themselves extra bitter, or extra astringent, or things like that, right? When they’re able, when they have the energy and the reserve required to turn up the production of these kinds of chemistry, then yeah. Then they can survive. But if they’ve had a stressful year, they’re less able to do that, right? They’re going to create most of these things out of sugar anyway. Out of the end result of photosynthesis. So, that’s kind of like the first thing that the plant produces. And then everything else that it makes is going to be further transformations from that original substance.

Katja (32:53):
And when you’re stressed out and exhausted, you’re not good at transformation. You know, it is literally the same. You get sick when you’re tired. You get sick when you’ve been super busy and haven’t had time to eat good food. You get sick when there’s so much stress piled on you, that you don’t have time to take care of yourself. That is exactly the same for plants.

Ryn (33:17):
For us as herbalist, you know, we’re looking for these medicinally active chemistries in the plant. And they tend to be most present when the plant both has a lot of resources, but also does face some stress, right? The stress is the trigger to produce these secondary metabolites, these active chemistries from the plant. The resources are required though, right? We’re not just saying find the most stressed plant you can get. That’s going to be the best medicine. If it’s in a little patch of sand on the side of an asphalt parking lot, that’s probably not going to be the best medicine around, even though it’s under the most stress. So, both parts of the puzzle have to be there.

Katja (33:58):
You know, it’s just another Goldilocks thing. Just like humans, we do require stress. Actually there are substances in our bodies that we have to make, that we cannot make if we don’t ever have any stress. It is part of being alive. We won’t make any muscles, if we don’t have a little bit of physiological stress, right? Like pushups are stress. But we need the Goldilocks amount of stress. We need the amount of stress that is what we can handle in that moment. Or maybe just a smidge more than we thought we could handle, but oh, we could do it. And then we need rest time afterwards. That’s why when you have a workout, you need a rest day after. The plants need that too. They need the Goldilocks amount of stress with a nice rest day afterwards.

Assessing Plant Populations Over Time

Ryn (34:49):
Yeah. So, that’s what helps them to do well and to thrive. One thing to keep in mind is that even if you’ve been visiting an area for a while, you have to try to still get a sense of how conditions are, how they have been, and how they had been for quite a while longer before then. So, the concern here is that maybe you’ve only actually ever seen a drought year, right?

Katja (35:12):
Which is pretty reasonable these days.

Ryn (35:14):
And then, and then you come around to that same area next time. And now it’s like six times as abundant. And you think ah, this is a great year. There’s so much here I can harvest a ton this time. Finally. I’ve been waiting. And that feels pretty good. But what if this is actually just the baseline again? And what you’ve been seeing was extreme stress for that population.

Katja (35:38):
Or even like not quite to baseline. What you see is like maybe three quarters of baseline. And it does look lush and thick and like a lot. And yet it’s only three quarters of what that particular plant community actually expects to be. This is one of those times where you have to be in relationship for a long time with a particular area to see what’s going on. And we’re going to talk about that in a little bit more detail, but I want to say one other thing about when we see that kind of community. It might be that you see a community, and it’s very small and spread out. And each individual plant looks gorgeous, but that is a plant that should be growing in a thick community. And instead there’s just one plant here, and one plant there, and one plant over there. I’m thinking about things like self-heal, like nettle, like goldenrod, mugwort.

Ryn (36:50):
Yeah. I feel like this year I’ve seen St. John’s wort a decent amount, but never a very big area. Like I could hug any St. John’s wort that I come across. And if I can get my arms around it, like my arms weren’t really that long, you know? Do you know what I’m saying here?

Katja (37:03):
Yeah. St. John’s wort, when it looks really excellent, it’s like a field of St. John’s wort. It’s longer than you. It’s lots of St. John’s wort everywhere. And yeah, I too keep saying oh, it’s been a good year for St. John’s wort. Except what I’m seeing is one St. John’s wort plant here, and then like…

Ryn (37:24):
A couple blocks over.

Katja (37:25):
Yeah, another St. John’s wort plant. So, St. John’s wort has been struggling the last few years, possibly as much as the last decade. And so we are feeling right now like oh, finally some St. John’s wort. We didn’t harvest any this year.

Ryn (37:42):
I mean, I’ve eaten a few flowers, but…

Katja (37:44):
But even for calibration, just recognizing that that’s just not… It’s not thriving. It’s not.

Ryn (37:52):
Yeah. But sometimes you will find plants that really are thriving for real. And maybe it just likes this climate. Maybe it just likes this climate change. I mean, it happens.

Katja (38:03):
It happens. Some plants do. This year the plants who were really thriving, erigeron. Yarrow was bonkers this year. Just absolutely everywhere. So, thick. I’ve never seen yarrow like this year. And every herbalist in Massachusetts was saying that. During yarrow season, nobody could shut up about how much yarrow there was everywhere. That’s what you’re looking for. That is the ideal plant to be working with. And listen, all of the plants have many, many skills. Sure, we think about yarrow. And maybe the first thing you think about is cardiovascular health. Or maybe the first thing you think about is like wound care or whatever. But listen, yarrow can do so many things in your body. And so getting really familiar each year with the plants who are really thriving. And then say okay, those are the plants I’m going to work with this year. And I feel like this is an old wives tale or folk wisdom thing that I used to hear a lot except in the reverse. And so what you would hear is oh, the plants who show up are the plants we’re going to need this year. Like it’s a wisdom of the earth kind of thing. And I want to think about that in reverse. Because thinking about it in those terms is not necessarily bad or wrong, but it is exploitive. Humans already have this tendency towards exploitation, at least humans in this time in place. Maybe not all humans always forever have.

Ryn (39:51):
Let’s hope not anyway.

Katja (39:54):
But humans right now have a tendency already towards exploitation. And when we phrase something as oh, the plants who are thriving this year are the ones that we need, and the earth has provided. Then the next thing that happens for us as humans is we will over harvest whatever has been provided. Because we think that it was provided, and therefore it is mine. And this happens subconsciously. You’re not bad if this happens in your brain. You’re not bad if you did this last week when you were harvesting. None of that makes you bad. This is a human tendency. And this is why I’m so fussy about thinking about the way that I talk about plants. Because I know that I’m fighting against human tendency here. And I have to do everything I can to program myself. And we’re going to talk about that in the next episode in this series. But so I like to think instead of let’s look at the plants who are super abundant and learn as much as we can about them. And work with the plants who are super abundant, so that we can let the other plants rest. Yes, it is semantics. Yes, I am splitting hairs. It’s a very small difference. But that small shift helps me to think more in terms of who needs to rest right now. And less in terms of who can I like stuff my basket full of right now. Even though both of these two statements are saying the same thing.

Ryn (41:37):
No, the distinction’s important.

Katja (41:39):
It’s just a little like mental…

Ryn (41:42):
Right. I mean, yeah. But things like that, they start out small, but then they ripple out through other places in your life. And they take on a greater meaning to this propagation. Yeah, okay.

Harvesting & Sharing Your Stash

Katja (41:55):
Yeah. So, the thing is that you’ll notice who’s thriving before they’re harvestable. And so what that means is that right off the bat, as soon as anything starts coming out of the ground, just take your walks. Go all the places you normally go. Look at who is thriving. Look at who’s getting ahead. Look at who is strong this year. Look at who isn’t. And think about who needs to be resting, and who needs a break, and who needs a little stress taken off of them. While you’re looking at all this, you can also be thinking is there anybody who needs a little extra water? Is there not enough water going on right now? Or if you’re talking about your own property, or property that you manage, property that you are in stewardship of. And you’re seeing that there are plants who are getting too much water. Is there anything that you can do to provide drainage for them? Stuff like that. That’s not something you can do on public land necessarily.

Ryn (42:59):
There’s a couple of guerrilla gardeners out there.

Katja (43:01):
Yeah. But so you can think about who is looking really strong this year. And who do you need to develop deeper relationship with, so that you can work responsibly and accurately with the plants who are thriving. And who needs to rest this year. And do they need any support from you in order to rest successfully, right? Just like you on a stressed-out day, you can have had a terrible day at work. It’s the fifth terrible day at work in a row. And instead of coming home and just going to bed and getting a ton of sleep, which is probably what your body really needs, you stay up really late and watch movies and eat pizza. And listen, that is super fun. And that is a way of coming down from stress. And it is totally valid to say I have worked my butt off all week. And I need some time for myself to do something enjoyable. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But it is not necessarily nourishing rest. And so we can think about the plants the same way. Like are they resting in a convalescent way, where they’re being cared for and being nourished and nourished through a hard time? Or are they resting by simply being neglected? So, you can think about how can you provide nourishing rest for the populations who are struggling.

Ryn (44:32):
Yeah. And of course even in a good year, even in a super abundant year, try to be realistic about what you actually need, and what you intend to do with what you’re going to harvest. Making sure that you have everything prepared in advance that needs to be. If this is something that needs to get harvested and go right into the jar or right into the dehydrator, that you have the materials and the time required to do all of that stuff, to make sure that it doesn’t go to waste.

Katja (44:59):
I’m thinking about Terry Pratchett, and specifically the Tiffany Aching series. That’s my favorite. But at one point one of the witches says that the best place to store surplus supplies is in somebody else’s belly. Yeah. I think they were talking about bacon or something at the time. Anyway, it was food. And they were saying that the best place to store that excess is in someone’s belly. And what they really meant was yes, in this particular scene someone had paid or like compensated this particular character with food that was not necessary for her in that moment. And she could have like somehow preserved it. But somebody else in her community was hungry and needed the food. And so instead of doing something to preserve it when she didn’t really need it, she just gave it to those other people who needed it, because that was a method of distribution. And it’s a kind of faith that we will in fact have what we need as long as we look out for one another, support one another. And later when you need something, then hopefully that person will be in a better spot, and they’ll be able to help you out. Or somebody else will be able to help you out. Sort of that it all evens out kind of aspect. Anyway, that’s what that part of the story was about. And you can implement that in your herb stash as well. At the end of each year if you look and you say wow, boy, I harvested way more yarrow than I really needed this year. I’m going to set a little bit aside to make tincture for next year. But I’m going to give this away to folks, because I clearly did not need all of it this year. And so I’ll save a little bit for myself for next year. I’ll give the rest away. When we do this, we are supplying one another. And you’ll actually end up with a greater diversity of plants to work with. You’ll end up with lots of cool stuff from each other. When you look at what you’ve got left at the end of a year and say well, I should give this stuff away, instead of just hoarding onto it for a really long time. And then it’s 10 years later and you’re like, I never used this. Just let it be used up. Except used – not used. But let it be shared up. How about that? That’s better. Share it up.

Building Awareness, Relationships, & Community

Katja (47:49):
And appreciate it. Yeah. For sure. Well, look, when we’re thinking here about the plants out in the fields. The plants that we’re thinking about harvesting, and taking home, and making into medicines, and then sharing with everybody. When we’re starting with those plants, when we’re trying to see whether they’re thriving or whether they’re under a lot of stress, this is about attention, and it’s about patience, right? We’ve been trying to bring forward that you can’t really know all of these things the first time that you go visit a plant or you visit an area. You have to develop an ongoing relationship with the landscapes that we harvest from and from the plants that we gather there. And I think about how there’s a parallel here to developing an ongoing relationship with a client or a customer or whatever community of humans that you may be serving as an herbalist in whatever way that you are an herbalist. Taking the time to observe and respond to climate level and ecosystem level stresses will help you to get better at observing and responding to health stresses and economic stresses and social stresses and all of these other kinds of things. It helps you to see the bigger systems at play. And the more that you do that, the more that that awareness shows up in all of the other areas of your life and makes you a better herbalist. Whatever kind of herbalist you’re doing, right? I was trying to include not just like clinical herbalism is where we focus most of our attention. But you know, if you’re gardening, if you’re making medicines and selling them to people, or bartering or whatever.

Katja (49:19):
Or if you’re supporting your community, or you’re teaching, or whatever else. Yeah. The more that you do this work, first just among the plants themselves. And then you won’t be able to help it. That type of awareness will start transferring over to your human communities. You develop it in the plant community. I mean, you can also intentionally develop it in the human community too, but it is the same skill. And so the more that you work on this skill, the more that you see systems of health, systems of stress, systems of who’s thriving and who is not doing well in communities. And that makes you better able to serve.

Ryn (50:01):
Yeah. Maybe we can step back for a moment, and say why are we even interested in foraging? Like we humans, we people who are Googling podcasts about herbalism, so we can learn more about forging herbs. Why are we interested in this at all, right? I think for a lot of people it’s because the image that we have of foraging is all about getting something that can help us or the ones that we take care of, and getting it for cheap, or getting it free. And there are a lot of issues with that image or that idea, starting with the true cost of labor time. And the true cost of the production of the phytochemistry on the part of the plant itself.

Katja (50:38):
Right. But even if you just think about labor of an individual. It takes a really long time to go out, and find something, and watch it until it is the peak of ripeness, so that then you can harvest it. And then actually harvest it. And then process it, whether you’re going to tincture or dry it or whatever you’re going to do. And then get it all ready and then have it… Like that’s a ton of work, actually. It is not free.

Ryn (51:00):
Yeah, right. But so, you know, the thing I want to say is that there are problems with that idea. But the desire for something helpful and inexpensive isn’t wrong. That’s great. We want to have that. And it turns out that there are accessible and inexpensive herbs who can help out with a wide variety of common health issues. And you can find them in a wonderful place called the grocery store. But listen, you should check out our Herbal Community Care toolkit for a targeted exploration of widely available, inexpensive, multifaceted herbs and weeds also, who you can learn to work with to support yourself and your own community.

Katja (51:41):
Yeah. Really, you know, we think about all the different places we think about in our cottage core image of where herbs come from, and what it looks like to be an herbalist, and whatever. But seriously, parsley y’all. You can get it for cheap at the grocery store. And it is an astoundingly potent medicinal plant.

Ryn (52:01):
Yeah. I think in the actions of creating and producing this course, we both really got a new appreciation for parsley and the different ways that it can help people out with cardiovascular issues, with water retention, just as a nutritive agent, lots of different reasons. But so we explore parsley and I think 34 other low-cost herbs.

Katja (52:22):
Yeah. There’s a list of them there on the website for it. But this course is available on a donation basis. So, you can choose a donation level that is appropriate for your budget. And if none of the donation levels are appropriate for your budget, just send us an email and we’ll send you a code that will give it to you for free. You don’t have to like apply or anything like that. You just send us and just say hey, I want the code, and we will give it to you.

Ryn (52:48):
Yeah. We want lots of people to have this information and also to share it, please, to share that widely. We believe that mutual aid and community building are really the only way that we’re going to survive long-term, so let’s get started, right?

Katja (53:01):
Yeah. So anyway, that is the Herbal community care toolkit. You’ll find it right at the top of the catalog. And when you go to online.commonwealthherbs.com.

Ryn (53:15):
And I’ll also put a link right there in the show notes.

Katja (53:17):
Yes. And it’s right next to a couple of free courses also. And so you should grab all of them. I mean, why not, right? They’re free. You should grab them. They are there for you. They are abundant, and they’re thriving, and so you can have them.

Ryn (53:33):
Nice. Very well done. Okay. So, that’s at online.commonwealths.com. This has been the Holistic Herbalism podcast. We’ll be back next week with some more. Next week? Well, next time. We’ll see.

Katja (53:46):
It might be next week. It might be.

Ryn (53:49):
Until then take care of yourselves. Take care of each other. Drink some tea,

Katja (53:53):
Drink some tea.

Ryn (53:54):
And take care of some outside plants too, will ya?

Katja (53:58):

Ryn (53:59):
All right. Thank you,

Katja (54:00):
Bye bye.


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