Healing Plants with plants and natural agriculture.

Healing Plants with Plants and Natural Plant Cultivation! (part one)

I have spent the last twenty years or so living in rural France, ten years living close to the land and trying to be self-sufficient on a small holding and ten years running an organic farm making wine and growing blueberries and medicinal plants. These ventures are now behind me but one of the very typically ‘French’ things they taught me was about using plant extracts to treat and tend cultivated plants. I know that botanical plant treatments are used all over but the French being the French have made it into an art form and a major part of organic cultivating. This is one of the subjects that I now teach students at the herbal school in Lyon.

 In order to give some the depth to the subject and enable readers to get their teeth into it, I propose this article in three parts, the first part will put ‘Healing plants with plants into context, the second will look at the techniques for making the extracts and the third will focus on some of the major plants used as fungicides, repulsives, bactericides, stimulants and elicitors.     

There is nothing new about this subject, in 1200 BC natural preparations were used in China as fungicides and for treating seeds, farmers all over the world were dependant on natural means to help preserve their crops from predators and disease. During the agricultural revolution in Europe, between 1750 and 1880, international commerce triggered the expansive use of the natural insecticide ‘Pyrethrum’, made fromthe dried flower heads of Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium and of course farmers and small holders worldwide all had their own local recipes and techniques for looking after their precious crops.

And then in one swell swoop, between 1920 and 1930, the industrial and scientific revolution proposed solutions to everything and the first synthetic constituents for fighting against plant diseases were available. These were followed shortly by the dreaded DDT and a whole new epoch began based on chemical solutions to help defend against insects in agriculture, horticulture, in stocked products, wood protection and of course public health.

And surprise, surprise, some years later in 1946, the first signs of resistance to the beloved DDT were detected in flies in Sweden, resistance developed fast and spread everywhere resulting in the general interdiction of DDT in the 1970’s, after of course a lot of damage had been done to ecosystems. Things however didn’t get better, they got worse and in 1983 the first transgenic plant was created, a tobacco plant that was modified to resist an antibiotic, this was followed in 1985 by the first transgenic insect resistant plant, again a tobacco plant in which a toxin gene of the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria was introduced.

Today, there is a strong desire and above all a great need to get back to non-aggressive, natural forms of agriculture and gardening. Monocultures, intensive farming, toxic treatments and high yields have dominated farming for the last 50 years culminating in what we can only call yet another ecological disaster. The very earth that feeds us is dying from being exploited rather than ‘tended’ and cared for. Dying is not an exaggeration; the earth is a living organism, very much like our intestines in that it is populated with its own specific micro fauna and flora that help keep it in natural balance. If this fine natural balance is disrupted and ignored, slowly what was living dies resulting in soils that are no longer capable of nourishing plants without the help of chemical fertilizers and the vicious circle continues.

Image One of the things that surprises my students when they come to learn how to make plant extracts is that we spend the first day or two looking at different pieces of land, touching and smelling soil from different places, sitting on the forest floor looking at what happens on and above the ground.

Herbal healing for plants is holistic just as it is for people; in fact the analogies between the two are numerous. As in herbal healing for humans, it is not just a matter of spraying a natural treatment onto a diseased plant. If we take the patch of land concerned to be the ‘whole’ much as we would look at a patient and their life, we cannot expect a plant that is grown on chemically saturated soil, in tight rows to react positively to a nettle fermented extract any more than we can expect someone who has eaten an unbalanced diet, lived a stressful life and used antibiotics every time they had a cold to have a positive reaction to their first herbal tea.

The area in France, where I teach this subject is called ‘the Beaujolais’ and it is an extensive winemaking region, the naturally poor soils are painful to see, eroded, bare and lifeless. When I ask students to take a handful of the cultivated soil and feel it, smell it…they realise straight away that there is no organic matter, no earthy smell, everything has been taken away, what was once living and full of micro-organisms is now dead, the only way anything can grow on it is through the regular use of fertilisers. On the other hand when they take a handful of soil from the forest floor, the texture is varied, crumbly, the soil is dark and rich and the smell is that familiar smell of earth, mother earth. Soil is one of the main elements that makes earth different than other planets in the universe, it is a mixture of organic material and very small mineral and rock particles that can support life. We come from the soil and we go back to the soil, everyday more and more of that precious soil is being eroded, poisoned or covered with cement.Image

Soil can be compared to the intestines, both are populated with microorganisms that help retain balance and both are vital for overall health.

In conventional agriculture the soil is often considered uniquely a support for the crop, absolutely no thought is given to its health. It is however of upmost importance to take into consideration the interactions between the soil, the plant and the environment in order to produce quality plants in a manner that respects both the environment and the health of the soil and the plant.

 In herbalism before prescribing plants the herbalist will often take into account and try and help the patient work on diet, lifestyle, exercise and mental and emotional problems etc. the same is true when working on naturally healing land.  

Herbal preparations are one aspect of a myriad of different factors that need to be taken into consideration such as soil care, mulching, plant association, hedges, ponds and biodiversity etc., they are just a part of a ‘holistic’ approach to agriculture.

As in herbalism, healing plants with plants is very different from conventional medicine, and its symptomatic approach. Preventative healing is as important in healing plants with plants, as it is in herbalism, plant extracts are often used to help prevent a disease developing before any symptoms are present, such as in preventative medicine. Of course, when a disease is manifest, plants can be used to relieve symptoms but the main aim is to go beyond the symptoms and find the causes. The real healing is about introducing progressive changes so that the causes of the imbalance disappear. Read the rest of this entry »