Creating Botanical Sanctuaries
The world is changing at an accelerating rate. The Internet, jet travel, and satellite links have helped facilitate this change with increasing fervor. Growing up in southern California in the 1950s, I am used to the kind of change that is quickly reshaping the surface of the Earth.
I watched the growth of chaparral-covered hillsides at the foot of the Sierra Padre Mountains plowed and planted with vast orange and lemon groves, only to be cut and plowed 20 years later for tract housing and strip malls. When I was 15, we moved to a 5-acre piece of land that was full of quail, deer, coyotes, aromatic shrubs, and huge 200-year live oaks. I used to roam this land smelling, touching everything, feeling very much a part of the wild animals and plants that called this place home. Several years later, preparations were made to put a major freeway through our backyard; the small country lane that wound peacefully along the front of our house was widened and became a four lane freeway for frantic travelers. The native habitat with its trees and plants were paved over, buried beneath layers of concrete. But despite these immense disruptions, the wild spirit of the land and of the plants that grew a mile above us on steeper slopes could still be felt.
A few winters ago in the desert where I grew up, the 100-year bloom happened. In all the years I had walked through this desert imbibing the essence of flowers and the pungent aroma of the chaparral bush under the bluest of skies, I could not, even in my wildest imagination, have pictured the vast ocean of purple sand verbenas and desert evening primrose sweeping as far as the eye could see. They had been waiting quietly for just the right moment to burst forth in such splendor and were literally blooming their hearts out.
In the Coachella Valley, near Palm Desert, most of the extensive chaparral and mesquite-studded dunes had slowly been flattened, plowed and made into golf courses, trailer parks, or strip malls. Here and there, however, a few hundred acre-squares were still untouched, more a testament to the outrageously steep price of land than lack of interest by developers. It was here in these untouched lots scattered amidst the malls and golf courses that the flowers bloomed most intensely. Since many of the lots had For Sale signs on them, it was only a matter of time before these too would be paved over, sealed in crypts of concrete. Did the intelligence of the flowers know what was to come? Were they reveling in the sheer joy of being with such bloom in one last majestic effort? It was then that the poignancy of it all struck me. After a half million years of evolution, these flower species, and all the insects, and animals that flourished with them would be no more, soon to be buried beneath malls and roadways. Standing amongst the transitory beauty of a thousand plus blossoms in full glory, witnessing what may never be seen again in my lifetime, I felt a great surge of tears.
It's likely that you have seen similar changes in the areas where you grew up and have experienced similar feelings. Perhaps the woods or fields you ran in as a child, built forts, climbed trees, and breathed in the fresh scent of spring wildflowers is gone now. Perhaps, too, the old forests that you knew as a child have been replaced by a maze of buildings. If you ever had the opportunity of walking in an old growth forest, it’s a feeling you’ll never forget. It is impossible to fully describe such an experience. The delicate and complex web of life found in an old growth forest is vital, so perfect that one feels completely at home and at peace. Truly, one has entered the ultimate cathedral or temple containing all the beauty and inspiration that is earthly possible. Surely these rare old forests provide an intelligence pattern, a blueprint, for life to continue. But of the vast ancient forests that once carpeted the Earth providing a home for countless species, only a small portion remains. In North America, the estimates run as low as 4%-5% of these original forests remains intact.
Its impossible not to imagine what will happen to the land, the plants, animals, insects, and other life forms that are being systematically destroyed in our lifetime and replaced by our vision of a convenient world, a world re-created to optimize our shopping opportunities. But this scenario is not inevitable. The land where you live is sacred and alive, even if it lies buried under concrete, or has had toxic chemicals poured into it. It becomes our personal responsibility to act to protect the Earth and the creatures and plants who share our home and, furthermore, to nurture and protect the expansion of the intelligence of nature. The land will regenerate; the first soil microorganisms and plants will detoxify, purify, and sanctify it. But we need to be willing to help.
Following are three important ways you can help expand, protect, and reclaim the landscape and thus preserve the rich diversity of life that occupies native land. Though these steps in themselves may seem small in view of the vast amount of habitat destruction taking place daily, they are among the most important ways we can turn the tide and create a greener world, because at the deepest level they empower us to make the difference.
Green belts. Think of coordinating land purchases, even small lots of land, with neighbors to create “corridors,” or “green belts,” so important to the health and continuance of the wild plants and animals. Encourage friends, family and community members to do likewise.
Become educated about land conservation. Educate yourself about local land trusts, conservation easements and environmental legislation in your area. Consider placing conservation easements on your land to protect its natural environment and resources into perpetuity.
Create a botanical sanctuary on your land. Though it may sound daunting, creating a sanctuary is relatively simple. If possible, buy land, as much as you can afford, whether it is a city lot, an acre homestead or a 100-acre wilderness parcel, and create a sanctuary for life. Though gardens and cultivated fields are lovely, it is important to restore wilderness, even to a small parcel of land. Begin restoring the native species that once grew in your area. This may require some investigation and research on your part. Talk to local wildflower societies; they are often great resources for plant information. Replant the native trees, shrubs, flowers, and medicinal plants that once inhabited your area and witness the rich diversity that begins to return to your acreage, your sanctuary, within a few short seasons. In the process, you will find out much about health, vitality and your own family’s well being.
You can create a botanical sanctuary on any amount of land — a city lot, a backyard, or on the other extreme, with 700 acres of forests and fields. Which is exactly what Paul Strauss, herbalist-farmer did. An inspiration to those who meet him, Paul embodies the essence of the Green Man. Three decades of keen observations and commitment to the land has instilled in him a knowledge deeper and more profound than any amount of book learning. In the early 70’s, Paul settled on a small farm in South Eastern Ohio. Beginning modestly with only a few acres, Paul continued acre by acre to purchase this inexpensive but lushly abundant land. Land purchase and stewardship became an overriding passion as his relationship with the land developed. Unable to sit back and watch the surrounding forests be clear cut, displacing the plants and animals that lived there, Paul mobilized friends, family and community members to purchase land. Over 700 acres of farmland and forest were preserved in the ensuing years. Strip mines that had devastated the land were reclaimed, the land planted, and ponds put in. The sanctuary evolved naturally as Paul replanted, restored and reclaimed the land.
In 1998, Paul donated 70 acres of his land to United Plant Savers to help form the first UpS Botanical Sanctuary. United Plant Savers is a non profit grass roots organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of native American medicinal plants. Shortly thereafter, Michael & Judy Funk of Mountain People, a natural products distributor, made a considerable donation that enabled UpS to buy 300 adjoining acres, completing the first United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary. This 370-acre farm has many of the elements of a plant sanctuary already in place. The land is 50% mature diverse native hardwood forest and 50% fields. Extensive botanical assays have been performed to determine the resources present on the land. To date over 500 species of plants, over 120 species of trees and over 200 species of fungi have been identified. Half of the “UpS At Risk” native medicinal plants are thriving in abundance on this land. Large communities of goldenseal, American ginseng, black and blue cohosh, and grand old medicinal tree species such as white oak and slippery elm flourish in abundance on this reclaimed land. The UpS sanctuary is a living model for protecting diversity, and ensuring that the rich traditions of the North American and Euro-American folk medicine continue to thrive.
But one doesn’t need a large parcel to steward land and/or create a sanctuary. UpS member Katherine Yvinskas has created a different and equally valuable model of a botanical sanctuary in her backyard in Morris County, New Jersey. In this small plot, Katherine has created an enchanted sanctuary for plants and people. Her garden landscape is planted in natives, and in a wooded corner of her lot she has planted several of the at risk herbs. Goldenseal, American ginseng, blue and black cohosh, mayapple and bloodroot are thriving where the former owners grew only grass. Amidst her community, Katherine’s botanical sanctuary offers a quiet respite for the weary, a reflective place to ponder, a joyous gathering spot to share with friends, and an educational center where others come to learn about the medicinal uses of native plants. Even on this small plot, Katherine is able to offer workshops and herb walks to raise her community’s awareness of native plant conservation.
She’s planned her sanctuary to be a welcoming spot for others beside the “two legged.” By simply installing a birdbath and a small pond, an increase in birds, butterflies and bees were noted in the first season. “The sanctuary reflects my love affair with the Dao, the complementary forces of nature. There is an ebb and flow to the garden. To me, it’s a living sculpture, always changing, beautiful to watch as it unfolds season by season. I feel blessed. The garden sanctuary is truly paradise… am I in heaven?” asks Katherine when reflecting on her sanctuary.
Rosemary Gladstar, president and founder of United Plant Savers, created yet another model of sanctuary. Living in the midst of thousands of acres of wilderness in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Rosemary became acutely aware of the necessity of maintaining the integrity of wilderness and the importance of protecting large “green belts” for wild life and plant preservation. When a 100-acre parcel of old growth forest abutting Sage Mountain, Rosemary’s 500-acre retreat center and botanical sanctuary, was slated for clear cutting, Rosemary appealed to friends and family for help. Through a lengthy and complex transaction, the land was purchased and placed in a UpS land trust with strict conservation easements insuring it remain a “forever wilderness.” The old growth forest, home to black bear, moose, white tail deer and beaver, as well as a rich variety of native plants remains in its pristine state.
But the story didn’t end there. In talking with surrounding landowners, there was a great deal of interest in land preservation. Several other landowners in the area along with Rosemary are considering placing large tracts of land in forever wilderness conservation easements. A small community supported nature center is in the process of being built, and a mile long self guided medicine trail has been established. It has become a popular place for community members to hike, to learn about the native plants and wildlife, and to become more aware of habitat preservation and plant conservation.
The possibilities are infinite. But what it takes is people willing to make a difference. Whether you have a small backyard like Katherine, a working farm like Paul, or a tract of wilderness like Rosemary, imagine it as a sanctuary, a haven for plants, wildlife and people. The idea of ownership of land was unheard of by the native people. How could one own land, own the heart of the Mother Earth? We are stewards of the land, caretakers in the deepest sense of the word. By creating a sanctuary, we begin to restore the idea that land belongs to all life, that it is life, and that our job is to restore it to its richest diversity.
Once you decide to establish your own botanical sanctuary, what practical steps can you take to help it grow and flourish, and be of service? Focus in these four areas: identification, restoration, preservation, and education.
Learn to identify plants. Before this century, herbalists were also botanists. Begin by identifying as many plant species on the land as possible. Invite a friend over that knows some of the plants, and buy several identification guides. When we moved onto our 40-acre piece in the Soquel hills near Santa Cruz, California, I roamed the land observing every plant and tree. As I recognized the plants, one by one, I began a list, which eventually grew to over 200 species. For the eastern United States, I recommend the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants of the Eastern U.S. by Steven Foster and James Duke. Terry Willard wrote an identification guide to Rocky Mountain medicinal plants, and Michael Moore’s excellent books cover the western U.S. Many flower identification books offer full color photos specific to your area and are available at your local bookstore or local wildflower society. For the more technically-minded, order a flora, or technical identification manual for your bioregion or state.
Learn where plants come from and where they are going. Pay special attention to whether a plant is a native plant to your area, an ornamental from some exotic place, or a weedy species. Many weedy plants, though valuable and often lovely to look at, tend to take resources like water and light that native plants require to live. In establishing a botanical sanctuary, you will want to limit the number of weedy species that thrive on your land, especially if they are obviously widespread. Herbalists love dandelion and milk thistle, valuable medicinal plants, but try to limit their growth to specific areas.
One of the first things I did on our land in the Santa Cruz Mountains was to establish a good weed patch. I collected weedy seeds and plants from all over the county and actually brought them to the land — first because I love their tenacity and survivability, and second, so I could observe them more closely and begin to understand how they fit into the whole botanical tangle on the land. I removed many other weedy plants around the land, especially in those areas/habitats that were most conducive to the native wild species.
Plant natives. Identify as many plants and trees that originally came from your ecosystem as possible. The more you learn about the ecosystem where you live, the better able you will be to help the land regenerate. In the process, you will be renewed and regenerated. Get to know your land intimately. Wander all over it and with permission, the surrounding areas. Get your neighbors involved! Locate a local native plant nursery or wildflower society and call for information.
Whenever possible use local sources. This preserves the purity, precedents, and intelligence of the original ecosystem where you live. You can order the same species from a supplier or nursery, but these may be genetic hybrids or carry the genes of some other species. We do a lot of seed collecting and propagation through cutting of local plants. I carry those little brown coin envelopes with me all the time, to store, identify, and organize weedy and native seeds. These are available from a craft store or stationary store.
- Preserve and protect the land. Join the UpS sanctuary network and be your own sanctuary manager. In today’s world, the land needs a champion, a steward, and a manager to reduce interference, to bring natives back to the land, and allow the intelligence of nature to work her magic. Signs are available through UpS that can be hung around the perimeter of your land to help people to honor and preserve the sanctuary.
Allow your sanctuary to become the educational center it naturally is. Teaching and learning about the land is a lifetime study. Within every community you’ll find knowledgeable people who are often willing to share. Invite them to your land. And always be willing to share with others what you have learned about land management, wild plants, and the importance of biodiversity. Here are some other ideas to create educational opportunities through your sanctuary:
Create a medicine trail on your land as part of your educational effect. It can be a path through your front yard, or as on Rosemary’s land, a self guided mile long trail. Make signs or have them made that give the Latin binomial, common name, origin, and uses of the plants on the trail.
Lead herb walks, or encourage others to give classes on the land. You’ll often find knowledgeable and willing people through the local forestry service, wildflower societies, herb clubs, and sometimes senior citizen clubs.
Create a nature center on your land. Teach others how to grow wild plants, ethical wildcrafting techniques, preservation, medicine-making, and herbal therapeutics.
- Help create and preserve serene places among the plants and trees for communion with the green spirits and devas.
Christopher Hobbs is a fourth-generation herbalist and botantist with more than twenty five years of experience working with herbs. Founder of Native Herb Custom Extracts (now Rainbow Light) and the Institute for Natual Products Research, Christopher writes and lectures internationally on herbal medicine.
United Plant Savers welcomes your support. For information on membership, our services or just to obtain further information on native plant conservation and habitat restoration, please contact the UpS office; United Plant Savers, P.O. Box 77, Guysville, Ohio 45735-0077; 740.662.0041; www.plantsavers.org . UpS has put together an informative Sanctuary Workbook that gives resources for creating sanctuary on private land. United Plant Saver’s will be hosting the 6th International Herb Symposium, Voices of the Herbal Renaissance, June 21 – 26, 2002 at Wheaton College in Norton Mass. One of the most comprehensive Herb Symposiums offered in the U.S, the International Herb Symposium brings together herbalists, medical professionals and students from around the world to study the traditional and modern uses of herbal medicine. Contact: International Herb Symposium, P.O. Box 420, E. Barre, VT, 05649; 802-479-9825 or visit our website at www.sagemountain.com.