In the eyes of Kyle Patton, Vancouver parks and community gardens are nature's apothecary. Where others see weeds and mangy shrugs, he sees the makings of an elderflower fever remedy, a comfrey-based anti-inflammatory ointment and an analgesic made of plantain, a pervasive weed (unrelated to the banana family) that can be used on bruises and bug bites, he says. "You can just chew it up and stick it on."
People needn't rely on pharmaceutical drugs to treat every minor ill, says Mr. Patton, whose training in herbalism includes seven months at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine in Ithaca, New York. Mr. Patton recently began teaching an eight-month herbal-medicine course in Vancouver to encourage people to use home-grown remedies, he says. About a dozen students have paid $1,200 each to spend several hours a week learning how to identify plants in the field and turn them into salves, teas and tinctures in the kitchen.
"It's not book learning," Mr. Patton says. "I really want people to develop a confidence in being able to make these things."
Community-based herbalism appeals to urban foragers, guerrilla gardeners and do-it-yourselfers of all persuasions. But herbal medicine is hardly just a granola-head phenomenon.
A report released in January by Global Industry Analysts, predicts the global market for herbal products will hit nearly $100-billion (U.S.) by 2015. The market researchers note that in the United States, retail sales of vitamins and herbal supplements grew by a record 10 per cent in 2008 due to boomer demand for preventive and alternative medicines.
At the grass-roots level, herbal-medicine exchanges have sprung up in communities ranging from Sonoma County, Calif., to Brooklyn, N.Y. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, the BBC ran a hit TV show for two seasons called Grow Your Own Drugs, in which ethnobotanist James Wong shows average Joes how to turn lemongrass into insect spray and transform elderberries into anti-viral jam.
The enthusiasm over folk remedies reflects a backlash against Big Pharma and a trend toward self-reliance, says Amber Westfall, who blogs about making tinctures and pastilles from plants grown in her Ottawa backyard. "You hear so many things about people growing their own food and the whole DIY culture," she says. "I think plant medicines and wild foods are just an extension of that."
Ms. Westfall says she's been able to reduce her dependence on pharmaceutical drugs since she studied with an herbalist in Ontario a few years ago. For a bout of conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, she used chamomile tea instead of antibiotics and the infection cleared up in less than two days, she says. "I made a chamomile tea, let it cool and used it as a wash for my eye, using the tea bag as a compress," she explains.
This spring, Ms. Westfall plans to boost her low iron count by taking nettles steamed as a vegetable or steeped as tea. "I'm really looking forward to stinging-nettle season."
Many of today's pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants used by traditional healers, including digitalis, quinine and aspirin, which was extracted from willow bark by Hippocrates himself.
But researchers caution that "natural" doesn't mean necessarily "safe."
The heart drug digitalis comes from foxglove, a common ornamental plant, notes Memory Elvin-Lewis, a professor of microbiology and ethnobotany at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. "If you pick up foxglove instead of something else that you think is moderate," she says, "you can kill yourself."
Self-medicating individuals run the risks of misdiagnosis, incorrect preparation of remedies and inappropriate dosage, Dr. Elvin-Lewis says. As well, plant samples may be contaminated with heavy metals such mercury, pesticides, viruses, toxic fungi and botulism.
Nevertheless, she says, it's impossible to convince backyard herbalists with minimal training that plant medicines may be unsafe. "It's like a religion to them."
A lack of understanding of herb and drug interactions can lead to serious side effects, says Lynda Eccott, a senior instructor who teaches a course on natural health products for pharmacology students at the University of British Columbia. For example, patients using prescription medications should avoid the herbal antidepressant St. John's Wort because "it interacts with everything under the sun."
Since Health Canada does not regulate the practice of herbalism, anyone can grow their own herbs to share. But Ms. Eccott urges people to use only herbal products manufactured according to Health Canada regulations. "You know that the quality is there."
Pharmacists are better qualified to give advice on herbal supplements than self-taught herbalists or health-food store employees, she says. "We don't always know if things are effective," she says, "but we have a really good idea if they're safe or not."
Judy Nelson, a naturopathic doctor at Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby, B.C., founded in 1926, agrees that certain plants do carry risks. But, she adds, it's generally safe for people to use common herbs from their own gardens. "I haven't heard of anyone getting sick [from them] Still, she recommends that people get advice from knowledgeable individuals, such as a registered herbalist with four years of instruction and 500 clinical hours of training.
Mr. Patton of Vancouver says he isn't concerned about exposing his students to potential health risks because his course focuses on gentle herbs, such as dandelion and burdock, harvested mainly from community gardens he planted himself.
Centuries of use have shown they're safe, he says. "I work with herbs that, to a large extent, used to be food."