Recently I returned to a patch of the Yarra River where as a herbal medicine lecturer we used to take students on an inner-city herb walk. In the intervening years the once quiet area has been absorbed into a bustling arts precinct. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the gentles slopes once abundant with medicinal weeds, now tamed and denuded.
Venturing even further off the path, there were no chickweed, cleavers or nettles to be seen, tenacious herbs that are usually abundant at this time of year. The odd dandelion proved resilient. But the diversity has been lost. Introduced grasses given free reign, strangling natives and medicinal weeds alike.
We’ve not just mown and sprayed urban herb patches out of existence, replacing them with grassy verges. We’ve inadvertently lost a vital and egalitarian pharmacy. Twenty years ago I could count on picking enough healing weeds for a week’s worth of spring tonic. Students could wildcraft just enough cleavers for personal use, to turn it into a lymphatic succus for their spring clean, or chickweed to make salves.
That forsaken patch of public land was unsprayed and safe to consume. For such robust plants to disappear altogether, the soil must have been repeatedly poisoned in the intervening years. And for what? Is a mown slope more beautiful to the eye than a sweep of bright wildflowers and verdant weeds?
I’m not enough of a conspiracy theorist to think that the council’s weed eradication programme is in collaboration with Big Pharma. But the reality is, we all loose when healing plants are banished from public spaces. The past decade has seen a growing acceptance of complementary medicines, sometimes prescribed interchangeably with drugs by integrative doctors. But these herbs are always in the sanitized form of tablets or capsules, encouraging no actual interaction with the plants themselves.
For centuries city dwellers have gleaned herbs for food or healing from public spaces. In Melbourne, it looks like we are the last generation to have had that privilege.
Like the growing trend in reconnecting with where our food comes from, is it time to do the same with our medicine?
If you enjoyed this, you might like to read more about what else has changed when I reflected on what I’ve learned from twenty years as a naturopath.