Wild or home-grown?

Are wild herbs better than cultivated ones? In countries where herbal medicine is still the first – or only – choice, most remedies are gathered from the wild. Unless there’s a commercial demand for a particular plant, there’s no point in using land and labour to grow it. And there’s an abiding mystique about medicine; if the plants you’re given by the healer are rare, unfamiliar or hard to find, at some level you will be more likely to want them to work. And so they will. The placebo effect is hugely valuable to us, and we need to make the most of it.

But it’s not only placebo. We know that plants growing in challenging conditions tend to produce more of the sort of chemicals that are often the key to their medicinal action. Grow a plant in optimal conditions, with plenty of good soil, water and nutrients, and you will produce a big, healthy specimen that is higher in starch and sugars, and less valuable as medicine. It’s the same with domesticated animals; their meat is higher in saturated fats than that of wild game. Maybe it’s the same with ‘tame’ people, too.

So is wild always better? It’s not so simple. In traditional societies, it was understood that you always leave enough to ensure a supply in the future; you know the right time of year to harvest, the right parts of the plant, and so on. But the global society is a long way from there. When something hits the headlines, like Hoodia a few years ago (it’s an appetite suppressant, used by Kalahari bushmen), there’s a huge surge in demand and in price. In the gold rush that follows, both traditional use and the plant itself can become extinct. We have no choice but to learn how to cultivate these treasures if we want them to continue at all. Perhaps the next step is to get cleverer in how we do that.

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