Plant Medicine in Nepal

Back in the village of Karmidanda in 2009 I daydreamed with friends, now colleagues, about a plant medicine farm. In 2010 I started to learn about the local plants, and in 2012 I started making medicine from them. First I chose the ones I recognized from my training in western herbalism, and over time I learned from local people about new plants and preparations, and how to use them for common ailments of the region. I cherish this experience.

I’m thinking back on that time now as we look forward to our 2019 programs, a decade later. Since our first medicine-making experiments in 2012, many naturopathic doctors have traveled to the area to learn and serve. We’ve always been watched with curiosity and have gotten quite the reputation for our magic little white pills (homeopathy) and our alcohol-based tinctures (some wonder why we have 15 empty bottles of vodka outside our house!). I savor the surprised look on a patient’s face when they learn their treatment is something they recognize from their own backyard.

In the last handful of years, curiosity has grown into true interest, and interest into a request for education. Accordingly, we’ll be laying the groundwork for a plant medicine program in Nepal next year!

Why does plant medicine matter?

There’s a written history of Nepalese plants used as medicine almost as long as there is written history. Nepalese plants first make an appearance as medicinal rock stars in some of Ayurveda’s earliest texts. Four thousand years later, the tradition is still going strong. Surveys demonstrate that most people living in rural areas still rely on plant medicine and traditional healers as their primary source of health care.

I will point out that this is not necessarily by choice. Many would gladly see a western trained doctor if they had one available to them, but that is far from a reality in Nepal and other parts of the developing world. The typical mode to see a doctor is through a health camp, a kind of pop-up clinic where healthcare practitioners visit remote regions and treat patients in high volume in just a few days.

ParticipAid also participates in an annual health camp, here’s our fabulous 2018 crew.

ParticipAid also participates in an annual health camp, here’s our fabulous 2018 crew.

Plant medicine doesn’t come and go like a health camp. It is low input, highly accessible, and if managed responsibly, completely sustainable. Medicinal plants already play a large part in Nepal’s culture and economy, leading many organizations to view them as a worthwhile product for income generation.

Why is plant medicine threatened?

When a family member comes down with a cold, they collect a couple different kinds of leaves and cook them in the fire until a very bitter juice can be wrung out and drank. When someone cuts themselves while working in the field, they know which plant to grab to soothe the wound. Most households have some basic plant medicine knowledge, but sadly this is fading.

In Karmidanda, the last plant medicine healer died many years ago. Each of his sons carry his knowledge in pieces, but it’s not their focus to practice or maintain it. They want education and well-paid jobs for their children, and that’s not feasible on a local healer’s salary. I recall several years ago a local shaman offered to train me to take his place. I respectfully declined, but when I asked why not his children, he told me none had the interest to devote their life to the practice. This is one of the impacts the western lifestyle has had on their culture.

This little leaf packet is cooked in the ashes to release juices that treat the common cold.

This little leaf packet is cooked in the ashes to release juices that treat the common cold.

What we can we do about it?

To our Nepali readers: ask your parents, grandparents and all your didis and dais what kind of plants they know how to use. I encourage you to learn about the plant traditions in your family and carry them on! This is your tradition, no one can save it better than you.

The rest of us can only help from the sidelines. For ParticipAid, investing in plant medicine hits right at our mission, empowering people to take their community’s health into their own hands. Our starting point is simple. We’ll share our knowledge with those who’ve requested it. We intend to organize community outreach and education events this coming fall to teach about a western approach to using Nepalese plants. Once we identify the invested stakeholders, then we can start to design a program for their future.

You can be a part of this. Are you a plant medicine expert?  Contact us to volunteer your expertise. If you care about this cause, but don’t fancy yourself an expert or see yourself traveling to Nepal anytime soon, please consider a donation to help us pull off a successful launch to this program!      

This work wouldn’t be possible without you.  Join us!