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Fredonia, New York

Invasive Plant Medicine

Herbal Writing & Recipes

For educational purposes only. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Invasive Plant Medicine

Sarah Sorci

A version of this article was printed in the first issue of Reciprocal Roots Magazine-- WNY's first ethnobotany/herbalism magazine! To obtain your digital or print copy, visit this website.   
photo: Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) thanks to wikipedia commons

In ecology circles, the mainstream attitude towards invasive plant species can be summarized in one word: "Boo!" There is evidence that some invasive species have a directly negative effect on the survival of certain native wildlife species. Reduced biodiversity, sometimes correlated with the presence of invasive species, is also bad news for the resiliency of an ecosystem.

However, as an Environmental Studies major in college, I questioned the preservationist approach of trying to keep things "the way they are," or as we imagine they should be. Isn't change the only constant in nature? Haven't seeds always migrated long distances via wind, water, and migrating creatures? While I never wished to justify careless and unsustainable human behavior, I suspected that preservationism was yet another product of the human ego-- presuming to know and act in the best "interests" of an ecosystem, while subtly indulging our own preferences instead. 

Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives by Timothy Lee Scott offers an interesting contribution to this conversation. While I do not resonate with every sentiment put forth, two well-researched points stirred me deeply, and are worth sharing:

1.) Invasive species are simply indicators of an unbalanced ecosystem. They are not the cause of imbalance. 

In a world being drastically altered by global climate change, habitat loss, acid rain, monoculture and more, some native species that once thrived are no longer well-adapted. Where invasive and other non-native species grow prolifically, they are better able to cope with these altered conditions.  

Scott shared research suggesting that even when invasives are removed and natives are offered their "traditional" space, some still will not thrive. Further, research demonstrates that many invasives have a remediating effect on contaminated land and water. In the absence of natives, invasives can prevent erosion and enrich the soil. When we see a large stand of kudzu or mugwort, it's possible that the story we tell about these "menaces" isn't capturing a bigger ecological picture. 

2.) The war on invasive species is fueled by corporate interest. 

Addressing root causes of flourishing invasive species would require paradigm-shifting changes that our culture and politics avoid: halting habitat loss due to development; prioritizing ecosystem health and climate change action over economic interest; enacting policies that would force truly sustainable practices upon polluting companies and farms. Instead of going this route, the war on invasive species has been an opportunity for herbicide companies to profit. The federal Invasive Species Advisory Committee is headed by a Monsanto employee. Many state organizations established for invasive species management are also closely tied to chemical corporations; for example, the California Exotic Pest and Plant Council was started by an executive of Monsanto (11). In 2006, of the 1 billion dollars allotted federally to combat invasive species, around 75% went toward herbicides and pesticides. Habitat restoration-- a root cause healer-- garnered the least financial support at 42 million dollars (12).

I share these points not to suggest that invasive species are harmless. Rather, I wish to promote a shift towards root-cause solutions, moving away from adding more toxic chemicals to our soil, water and air.

Invasive Plant Medicine
Scott's book offers detailed information about medicinal properties and ecosystem services offered by WNY invasives like Japanese knotweed, multiflora rose, garlic mustard, bittersweet and more.

Have you seen purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria, pictured above) flowering along WNY roadsides in August and September? Though this plant has been described as "taking over wetlands," Scott claims that existing scientific evidence did not support this story at the time of publication. Instead, Scott points out that Lythrum absorbs excess nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, prevents erosion in disturbed areas, and is very popular amongst pollinators.

No matter the ecological case, a tea or tincture of purple loosestrife leaves & flowers can support the immune system, respiratory congestion and much more in the human body. Be sure to harvest in a location whose chemical history you are more more familiar (and comfortable) with.

It is just about time to harvest multiflora rosehips in WNY! For info about properties and uses of roses (both invasive and otherwise), check out this article.

Scott, Timothy Lee. Invasive Plant Medicine: The Ecological Benefits and Healing Abilities of Invasives. 2010.