View from the Meeting House Deck: A Herbalist’s Perspective

By Barbara Neznek

Once we were all connected.

It was late spring the first time I looked out over the Schoharie Valley from the Meeting House deck. There were, as Johnny Cash sang about Ireland, 40 shades of green. That the colors and flora are so similar is not surprising. Two hundred and fifty million years ago most of the continents were joined together. When the land mass parted, what had been connected to North America eventually became the British Isles and Ireland. The same blue stone that is found in New York’s Catskill Mountains composes the Standing Stones known as Stonehenge. Perhaps continents were restless and needed to explore the world.

Humans were once connected too, but eventually they dispersed everywhere on the planet. As our ancestors traveled, they took many species with them, including plants. Early settlers brought plants along for food, medicine, or because they reminded them of home. Often the spread of plants was unintentional, what with seeds hiding inside or outside of ships and planes.

One plant that you can spot immediately from the deck is the dandelion. It is the bane of gardeners everywhere, unless they are herbalists. Dandelions have been cultivated for more than a thousand years as they are mineral rich and highly nutritious. They have been used as remedies for many illnesses, including liver problems, gastrointestinal distress, and skin ailments. Dandelions are as good a diuretic as many pharmaceuticals, with the bonus of adding rather than depleting body minerals.

Another easily recognizable plant is plantain. The leaves and the seeds have such uses as an antiseptic, diuretic, expectorant, laxative, poultice, and vermifuge. Medical evidence exists that it is an alternative medicine for breathing and bladder problems, fever, hypertension, rheumatism, and blood sugar control. Plantain grows wherever colonists have settled and has been named the “White Man’s Foot” by Native People who quickly realized the plant’s value and incorporated it into their own medicine.

On the day of my visit, the locust trees were in full bloom and so full of honey bees that the sound was clearly audible on the deck. Black locust is considered “invasive,” although it is native to North America. The tree just moved out of its original habitat. I am of Scotch- Irish descent, and I know that when my people started to arrive, poor and sick, the Native People no doubt thought we were “invasive.” And so it was and is with every new species that arrives and competes for space, sometimes supplanting those already here.

From the deck, I could identify the invasive Japanese honeysuckle. This plant possesses antibacterial properties and could become important as antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria are becoming more prevalent.

Everything moves -- people, plants, even the land itself. But we were all connected. In addition to providing medicine, maybe the plants are trying to teach us. Perhaps they would like us to know that if we spend time with new individuals who are different, we might find that they have gifts to offer – and aren’t hostile invaders after all. The mountains that we see from the deck of the Arboretum today might not be there in another 10,000 years, and no doubt the plants will all have changed. And where will our species be in that distant future? Our fates are all intertwined.

Summer 2017

Volume 35 , Number 3

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