Media: National Geographic: Into the Weeds

Media: National Geographic: Into the Weeds

This article first appeared in October 2011 in National Geographic, authored by Sally Blundell:

Fields of Plenty

Look closer. The straggling plants on the riverbank, the so-called weeds in the garden, the insect-eaten leaves on the forest’s edge—often ploughed, sprayed or simply ignored—are finding their way back into the medicine chest. And Māori herbal remedies, once derided and outlawed by an act of Parliament, are revealing their curative power.

SANDRA CLAIR HOLDS the stem of a small yellow flower. We’re standing on the muddy edge of a floodplain about ten minutes’ drive out of Wānaka, a sodden, scruffy plateau under the hulking presence of the Cardrona mountains.

Clair points to the minuscule perforations on the petals and leaves. She shows me the roundness of the stem and how, if she rubs the petals with her fingers, her skin is stained red. Evidence, she says, that this is St John’s Wort, one of 13 different varieties of Hypericum now outselling Prozac in Europe as a remedy for mild to moderate depression and anxiety.

“It is a great friend of mine,” says Clair. “A fabulous plant. It’s energy-giving. It’s liquid sunshine. I remember the first time I saw it here, I almost cried.”

Medical herbalist Sandra Clair harvests St John’s Wort, thriving in the hot summers and freezing winters of Central Otago.

Fields of Gold

Clair is a medical herbalist, trained in the mountains of Switzerland and the universities of Berne and New England, founder of Artemis, a Dunedin-based enterprise making plant-based oils, creams, tinctures, balms and medicinal loose-leaf teas (a different creature altogether, she says, from the pulverised contents of most supermarket herbal teabags) as a basic maintenance kit to treat common ailments and boost the body’s ability to ward off illness.

Two weeks ago, Clair was here with Artemis staff and friends, collecting flowers and stems to be processed into a strong, blood-red oil or to be dried for tea.

This is the tradition of wild-crafting—an age-old practice of harvesting plants in their natural environment, a science long dependent on proper identification, an appreciation of sustainability and an understanding of when the plant’s active constituents are at their strongest.

“Not too early,” says Clair, “and not too late. It’s like wine, or cherries.”


THE DRIVE THROUGH Lindis Pass to Wānaka is a succession of photo stops: the pencil-pale peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook, the icy blueness of Lake Tekapo, the expanses of tussock cloaking the foothills. Cut out of the frame, however, is the disorderly profusion of plants crowding the riverbanks and hillsides in the foreground: yarrow the wound-healer (its Latin name, Achillea millefolium, is taken from the story of Greek hero Achilles’ narrow escape from Paris’ arrow thanks to the properties of this ubiquitous plant), rosehip, thyme, St John’s Wort, elderflower, hawthorn—a miscellany of weeds, trees and flowers introduced by early goldminers as a living first aid kit, by European settlers as culinary or medicinal herbs or ornamental plants, or arriving as rogue seeds in imported grass mixes imported from around the world.

Thriving in the hard light, a climate that sears Central Otago in summer, freezes it in winter, this wild medicine chest is healthy, strong, vibrant.

“The herbs here are outstanding,” says Clair. “And we really need to make more of a noise about it.”

Older than the yarrow on the Lindis Pass, older than the elderflower trees on the road to Alexandra, the use of plants to treat ailments has a long and largely unbroken history.

“If you condense the history of human medicine into a relative period of one year,” says Phil Rasmussen, pharmacist, medical herbalist, founder of Phytomed Medicinal Herbs and manufacturer of the Kiwiherb range of herbal extracts and tinctures, “everything except for the last minute was dominated by herbal medicine.”

For early Māori, the bush was well stocked with remedies for the treatment of disease and injuries. While the earliest European doctors, chemists or “compounders of vegetable medicines” relied on imported dried herbs, sold on the goldfields from “canvas stores” or through the fledgling network of dispensaries, many were keen to include native plants in their practices. In The New Zealand Family Herb Doctor, published in 1891, herbalist James Neil described mānuka (“a well-tried and approved diuretic”), koromiko, horopito, pohutukawa and harakeke (for ringworm and dysentery) as among New Zealand’s most valuable herbs.

As physician Robert Fulton wrote in 1922, “When [the English medical practitioner’s] scanty stock of drugs failed him, he turned to the Maoris for some of their medical lore and knowledge.” (Fulton in turn treated Māori “writhing in apparent agony” with a bolus of “powdered opium and butter”).

But a list of native plants and their respective uses? Teacher, ecologist and practitioner of traditional medicine Rob McGowan sidesteps the question. As with many indigenous approaches to medicine, he says, rongoā, the traditional healing system of Māori, involves a more holistic approach to health.

“The foundation of Māori medicine isn’t in plants, it’s in wairua. Its basis is spiritual. Often the sicknesses we get derive not from the bugs we encounter but from the feeling within us, which science is beginning to demonstrate has a direct effect on our immune system. If you just worry about the physical symptoms you might be starting in the wrong place.”

In the largely unregulated heath sector of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rongoā Māori was one of a number of healing practices on offer. Herbalism, Chinese medicine, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, homeopathy and Western medicine were all available to augment traditional systems of family healthcare—including the ubiquitous mustard poultice—handed down through generations.

Found only in the lowland forests in the northern part of North Island, Loxsoma cunninghamii, one of the 20 specimens gifted by King Tawhiao to Dr J. T. Rennie, is described as “a powerful purgative and anthelmintic”.

Despite its popularity, however, herbalism and rongoā Māori had—and continue to have—their detractors. In 1907, Neil, then president of the fledgling New Zealand Association of Medical Herbalists (NZAMH), petitioned Parliament for legal status for herbalists. He was unsuccessful. According to one letter-writer to the Evening Post, “The stewer of drugs is obsolete.”

In 1939, faith healer-turned-herbalist Bill Anderton—a Labour MP for 25 years and grandfather of 1984–88 finance minister Roger Douglas—applied again for separate registration. A government compromise, whereby registered medical herbalists would be dependent on GP referral, was declined. According to former NZAMH president Joan Flynn, Anderton recognised that, while herbal medicine can be complementary to orthodox medicine, “it can also provide a complete alternative for many patients”.

Traditional Māori medicine faced a more determined challenge.

The Medical Practitioners Registration Act 1869 and the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907—pitched, says McGowan, at the emerging “messianic” movements rather than traditional methods of healing—succeeded in restricting traditional herbal practice or pushing it underground.

Whare wananga disappeared, knowledge was lost.



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