Re-examining Herbalism in the Light of Colonialism

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When I wrote my tea primer, I included a section about herbal teas, in which I talk about the importance of botanical or scientific names in identifying the herbs that you are purchasing or planning to use. But a recent post from Justin Robinson on Instagram has made me not only rethink my relationship to the names of plants, but also my relationship with herbalism and its roots in colonialism and cultural appropriation.

Robinson talks about how “scientific” names were actually more like the colonized names of a plant. In his video about hydrangea, he talks about how the original name was ajisai, as it originated in Japan, but the Greek-derived name “hydrangea” leads us to forget or never know the plants origins. And in some cases, the scientific name can be so completely divorced from the native plant itself that it even honors a European botanist that never even saw the plant itself in its natural habitat, such as the plant spiderwort, which is part of genus Tradescantia, named for John Tradescant the Elder, who never even travelled to the new world. His study of specimens from the Americas was solely from plants that were brought to him by colonizers (including his problematic friend, John Smith). While many of the common names for plants of this genus are equally problematic, the name spiderwort likely refers to the spider-leg-like leaves or the way the flowers grow in clusters. Interestingly, this common name makes it easier for me to identify the plant, as it only flowers for a short window of the day, and the characteristic leaves and bud clusters are much more recognizable later in the afternoon.

An example that is even closer to home is mugwort, which I have pictured above. It is a common weed, native to Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa, and invasive to North America. Its scientific name is Artemesia vulgaris, which suggests its relationship to wormwood (A. absinthum), as well as suggesting a connection to some of the herbs used in ancient Greece that may or may not be similar. But the common name mugwort is what suggests its traditional use — its dried flowers were used as a bittering agent to flavor beer, much the same way hops is more commonly used today. And like hops, mugwort has digestive actions, as a bitter plant, as well as anti-parasitic and preservative qualities, and nervine actions. The scientific name, while somewhat standardized and “official” is not terribly indicative of what the plant can do, merely indicating that it is the most common example of the genus named after ancient Greek tradition.

These examples are just one reason why I’ve chosen to re-evaluate my herbal education in the light of colonialism and appropriation. All of the teachers I’ve turned to and schools I’ve gone to for herbal education in the past have been started by white women. The companies from which I buy herbs are white-owned and many of the books I use for reference are white-written. And apart from just diversifying the voices in my education, these people often use traditions that are not those in which they were raised without properly calling out the problematic history that has made those traditions available to us. A commonly-used example is the practice of smudging with white sage. While burning herbs to drive out miasma, “bad humors,” evil spirits, or any other unseen harmful entity, is common through folk traditions around the world, the specific practice of “smudging” and the use of white sage is specific to certain nations indigenous to the Americas. In fact, sage was only one of the sacred herbs used in this ceremony, and it was illegal for many of these people to practice their traditional religions until the late 1970s, making it even more insensitive for those descended from colonizers to use this practice lightly, perhaps to “cleanse” a new house they’ve bought with the generational wealth they’ve built on the backs of colonized nations. Plus, white sage is endangered and is often produced in highly unsustainable ways, making it even less available to those who use it for sacred traditions.

An even more insidious example is stevia, which went from a traditional plant used by the Guarani people to a mass-marketed product patented by Coca-Cola. Despite the fact that the only reason European colonizers learned how to use stevia (or ka’a he’e, as they call it) as a sweetener comes from the shared knowledge of the Guarani, white-owned corporations are patenting and profiting off this knowledge, while providing none of this wealth to the people who originated the practices. Plus, the actual stevia plant is not considered “safe” by the FDA and is banned from import. So this traditional plant is only deemed acceptable when it has been processed through the factory of colonial capitalism.

So what can we do to fight against this? Well, personally, I am trying to learn more of my herbalism from non-white sources. Robinson is one such teacher, as is Farai Harreld, whose Folk Herbalism for Everyone is on Patreon, among many others. The phenomenon of Black and indigenous herbalists reclaiming their traditional knowledge is particularly poignant, as these communities might have a very well-earned distrust of the mainstream medical community. Generations of abuse, exploitation, and experimentation has left them with a desire to make do on their own as much as they can. And while I don’t share their generational distrust of modern medicine, I appreciate the idea of using traditional medicine and allopathic medicine together.

But I have many gaps. For one, while many of the herbalists I follow sell products they have made, the return on value-added products, like tinctures, tea blends, and salves or oils, is much higher than selling bulk herbs. But I would like to find a source of bulk herbs that is owned by BIPOC herbalists, rather than one started with the benefit of generational wealth and access to startup funding. I am always new and always learning and appreciate any recommendations people have to give. For now, I will be re-examining my relationship with who I consider an authority in all spheres of my life.

NB: I am not a medical professional or a licensed herbalist. None of this is intended to be taken as medical advice. Please consult your own treatment professionals for advice. No brand relationships or PR gifts to disclose. For more information about collaborating with me, see my contact and collaboration information.

When Tea Isn’t Tea

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One of the constant battles among the community of tea connoisseurs is how to talk about infusions of plants that are not Camellia sinensis. There are those that are staunchly in the “tisane” camp — it’s not “tea” if it’s not from the tea plant. Others are perfectly happy to use the term “herbal tea.” Interestingly enough, history and linguistics bear out this camp, as the term “tisane” originally referred to a barley-based beverage and was not brought into the common lexicon to mean something other than C. sinensis steeped in hot water until modern times. In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a recipe known as “beef tea” that was similar to a modern broth (interestingly enough, though Isabella Beeton’s 1860s book has recipes for “beef tea,” a similar dish made from chicken is called “chicken broth”). And I have found other instances of infusions of non-C. sinensis ingredients referred to as “teas.”

But this is a digression. You see, not all teas I drink are “true teas.” In fact, one of my earliest tea posts on this blog was my formula for my Gardener’s Herbal Tea, a blend of nettles, rosehips, red raspberry leaf, and oatstraw. Along with my love of C. sinensis, I’ve also had a passion for exploring herbal remedies since I was young. And in my Tea Primer, I expanded a bit on how I handle herbal teas (or tisanes or infusions, as you will) in general terms. But I would love to take more time in this space to talk about specific herbal remedies, and one of my tea goals for 2020 is to learn more about herbal traditions outside of the Euro-centric traditions I’ve primarily followed. So, to that end, I’ve decided to pursue some formal studies in herbalism.

This coincided with my own realization that I had stopped using one of my longtime personal herbal remedies, red raspberry leaf, since giving birth. I had been drinking red raspberry leaf tea for well over a year, starting from the time we first started thinking about trying to conceive, and on through my miscarriage, and then my pregnancy with Elliot. In fact, my pregnancy announcement on my YouTube channel was a tea session where I made a cup of red raspberry leaf tea. But I became thoroughly sick of it by the time Elliot was born (nearly two weeks late!) and had stopped drinking it in favor of other things after his birth. But in chatting with a friend on Instagram, I realized that I had always appreciated its support during my monthly cycle, and so I came home that night, mixed up a big pot of red raspberry leaf with chrysanthemum, orange, and some local honey for taste, and sat down with my mug in hand to explore my herbalism course options.

I discovered that one of the greats of herbal healing, Rosemary Gladstar, offers an online course that even has an option to sample just the first lesson for a modest price before committing the time and money to the full course. So I leapt at that and am now awaiting my first lesson to see how I like the course style. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy it, but for now I’m reading the books on herbalism I already have while I wait (along with maybe one or two new purchases), and have even ordered some fresh packets of herbs I’ve liked in the past. I’m excited to start this journey and have you all along with me, and I will almost certainly post updates as I progress!

A New Kind of Herbalism

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve long had an interest in traditional, herbal-based remedies. While I certainly go to the doctor when I’m very sick, for more minor complaints, I often try an herbal remedy before anything else. For example, when my recent terrible sore throat came back negative for strep, I turned to herbal remedies to soothe and heal it in the absence of any allopathic intervention. I also love to use herbal and DIY remedies for skin care, though I’ve moved a bit away from that since discovering that many homemade skin care products are not exactly what my skin needs. But since discovering Asian beauty and skin care products, I’ve gotten more into the traditional healing side of Asian skin care and health.

Specifically, I’ve discovered the joy of Hanbang products. Hanbang is Korean traditional medicine. It is very similar to Chinese traditional medicine, although it does have a distinct lineage. One of the most common practices is the use of teas, particularly those based around ginseng and other prized roots. Ginseng, ginger, licorice, Korean angelica, and Solomon’s seal are some of the favored roots in Hanbang teas, as well as remedies such as jujube, persimmon, Schizandra, and citron teas. I actually had a coworker offer me a spoonful of Korean citron marmalade to make a cup of citron honey tea when I was feeling unwell. The bitterness of the citron peel mixes well with the tart citrus taste and sweet honey. I find it far superior to regular lemon-and-honey tea, honestly.

Additionally, I like to use herbal infusions and teas as a way to support healthy body function. I was drinking at least two cups a day of spearmint infusion for the last month, as it is supposed to help balance hormones and improve both hormonal mood swings and hormonal skin issues. As hormonal acne on my chin is the one condition that resists my routine’s improving influence, I thought it was worth a try. Now, armed with some research about traditional Asian medicines, I’ve added to my morning brew. I add ginger to help with circulation, as the temperature in my office hovers somewhere between bone-chilling and simply fingertip-numbing. Goji berries add an interesting flavor, as well as a host of nutrients. I cannot bring myself to eat goji berries, but adding them to tea seems a reasonable way to reap their benefits. Finally, dong quai, which is known as “female ginseng” or “the Empress of herbs” in traditional Chinese medicine, helps support the hormone-balancing action of the spearmint. Unfortunately, it also has a strong flavor reminiscent of celery and may be better suited to an herbal broth than a tea. I do find that this upgraded blend is more invigorating in the morning than spearmint alone, though I have not used it long enough to determine any other benefits.

I’m excited to have found new remedies to bring into my herbal cabinet and look forward to more experimentation. Please share any favorite herbal remedies you might have!