An Interview with United Plant Savers’ Susan Leopold
Susan Leopold will have served two years as executive director of United Plant Savers (UpS) this fall. UpS is dedicated to preserving habitat for medicinal plants native to North America.
Leopold’s call to head up UpS was undertaken by humans, but the initial call came when she was on another continent—by plants. She had taken part in an ayahuasca ceremony in South America, believing that it would be a gateway “where I was going to travel the world and be with indigenous people,” she says.
“Plants talk to you,” Leopold says. “You don’t dictate what they tell you.”
During the ceremony, the message she got was that the indigenous people did not need her help.
“You need to save the native plants where you come from,” she was told.
Although she did not want to go home, Leopold got the message. As biodiversity in North America erodes, native plants, including medicinals, are “imperiled. They’re endangered.”
Leopold had earned her undergraduate degree in tropical ethnobotany from Friends World College (now LIU Global) on Long Island. She also is certified in landscaping design by the Conway School of Design. She earned a Ph.D. in environmental studies from Antioch University New England. For her dissertation, she developed a philosophy about plant knowledge while researching a small mountain range, the Bull Run Mountains, which straddle Prince William and Fauquier counties in Northern Virginia.
“The knowledge goes dormant and then comes back,” she says. “It cycles.”
The Reemergence of Plant Knowledge
UpS, says Leopold, is about reemerging from that dormancy. She believes she brings a fresh perspective to UpS, one in which scientific knowledge can help to validate the traditional and intuitive aspects of botanical medicine.
Part of the function of UpS is to create botanical sanctuaries for endangered native medicinal plants. “Sanctuary” does not have to be acres and acres of land. Someone whose back yard is mostly shade might actually be a good candidate for growing native medicinals.
Leopold would like to see the sanctuaries become more active from a scientific standpoint so that research could be conducted on plants in different sanctuaries.
“You’d think medicinal plants have been studied since Aristotle and Dioscorides,” she says. “Yet, with DNA studies and chemical analysis of alkaloids [compounds in plants that may trigger therapeutic effects in those who consume them], we’re just beginning to understand scientifically how powerful these medicines are.”
In contrast to most modern medicine, herbal medicine uses the whole plant, Leopold says. The whole plant provides all the constituents—not just those isolated by researchers and deemed to be most “active.” “Now, they can actually prove there’s a synergistic relationship.”
Giving Plant Knowledge a Scientific Sanctuary
She cites goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) as an example. A high-dose extract of berberine—found in plants like goldenseal, Oregon grape and barberry—can be used to combat MRSA (multi-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), but when the whole plant is used, a low dose has been found to be extremely effective. (See “Synergy in Botanical Medicines: Goldenseal as a Case Study” by Nadja B. Cech in UpS’s Journal of Medicinal Plant Conservation, Winter 2012.)
Leopold believes more scientific study of native medicinals grown in different areas is needed because DNA analysis has shown that the “alkaloids are different based on where that plant is grown.”
Hence, the importance of habitat conservation.
“If we don’t conserve on a geographic basis, we’re going to lose that medicine,” Leopold says.
The situation is somewhat similar to threatened domestic breeds of livestock. In the beginning stages of conservation, it takes dedication on the part of committed individuals to preserving various breeds, whether Belgian hares, Pineywoods cattle, or Red Wattle hogs. Beyond that come the marketing efforts, the creation of a pool of demand by interested eaters.
With respect to endangered medicinals, bringing in science can help to establish credibility with herb companies and their customers, and understanding the impact on land can help interest conservationists. Initial demand creates a need for more credibility, which can result in more demand.
Where things get thorny is in the apparent great divide between lovers of native plants, who may be dogmatic about their approach to non-natives, and those who see potential benefits in all plants.
“There are no easy answers,” says Leopold. “This is complicated, difficult, controversial. You’ve kinda got to flush it out. These sanctuaries may be a pathway into that.”
Weed Warriors and Weed Lovers Unite!
A long-term vision could be for those “weed warriors” who love native plants and seek to preserve habitat for them to join with herbalists or foragers who want to gather non-natives to make food or medicine from them—anything from garlic mustard pesto to kudzu tincture. Opportunistic plants often push out natives, so teaming up could be a win-win.
Besides, why not use what nature freely gives?
When Leopold ran a community-supported subscription farm near Linden, Va., she said they would harvest the garlic mustard from the woodlands and made pesto out of it with garlic tops, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and pine nuts. Each subscriber received a container of it.
“When you look at the weeds, it’s so what we need,” she says. “Weeds have the vitality to thrive in disturbed environments—like our well-loved dandelion and common plantain. They often provide medicine for common ailments.”
Habitat fragmentation created by development also puts pressure on species that are mostly unseen—mycelia. Mycelia are the great decomposers. Turn over a pile of wood chips or even a piece of wood that’s had some period of contact with the ground and you will notice fine, often white thready strands. That is mycelia. Under the right conditions, different kinds may even fruit, and then mushrooms will appear.
Land that is prepped for housing is often bulldozed, the land itself scraped, which disturbs and kills the mycelia. Mycelial networks, as have been written about by mycologist Paul Stamets, are one of the cornerstones of healthy soil—and all that grows in it.
Leopold views botanical sanctuaries as a possible way to reconnect mycelial networks.
The nice thing is, sanctuaries need not be complicated. “Applying to be a sanctuary is about setting an intention to protect your land for the conservation of medicinal plants,” says Leopold.
UpS reviews each application and provides feedback on the unique nature of each potential sanctuary. “We think we have to validate a reason to be special,” Leopold says. “It’s all special. These plants are healing the Earth. The Earth is healing us.”
What You Can Do
If you have land or even a patch of land on which you grow or would like to grow native medicinals and are interested in joining United Plant Savers’ Botanical Sanctuary Network, please go here for more information. Applications are available at the bottom of the page. If you don’t have land on which to grow native medicinals, you can still support the work of UpS by becoming a member and/or making a donation.