Authors Georgann Eubanks (Saving the Wild South), and Kat Maier (Energetic Herbalism) discuss ecological stewardship and resources for medicinal plant uses from many traditions. Much more than guidebooks, these authors trace their own research and travels toward deep appreciation for sensitive ecosystems. In conversation with Lilia Fuquen.
Watch the video from this event:
SUE EARHART: Good morning, everyone. I know, we’re out of practice. It’s so great to see everyone. I’m Sue Earhart, executive director of the Ivy Creek Foundation, and I’m so happy to see people. It is my honor—absolute honor—to welcome all of you to the Ivy Creek Natural Area and River View Farm. It is such a gem here in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. I am also delighted that for the first time we are hosting this Virginia Festival of the Book event, which is produced by Virginia Humanities. Thank you, Virginia Festival of the Book.
I also just want to remind everyone this is the first day of spring, and what a wonderful way to start the spring. And it has been a long, long winter for the last three years. So it is great to be with all of you today.
I would like to officially thank our sponsors for the event, the Ivy Creek Foundation, the Little Blue Stem Collective, and the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards. I’d also like to thank several of our outstanding Ivy Creek Foundation volunteers that are here today helping with this event. Lorna is working the table. Tom, Phil, Dan, and many of you who are here helping either monitor and maintain our trails or help teach our classes. There are hundreds of you that keep this place going, so thank you all so much for everything you’re doing.
A couple of housekeeping items. If you have a cell phone, if you could silence that at this time. If you need a public restroom, they are located on the other side of the barn. Please tweet about this event at #vabookfest or #vabook2022. We think the Virginia Festival of the Book is a wonderful community resource, and the way we keep making it better is by your feedback. So please fill out an evaluation, which is online at VaBook.org/feedback.
Today, we are lucky to have Bluebird Bookstore, which is the trailer just to the right. Please support our local booksellers and our local authors by buying books. And I’m happy to announce that any of the books that are bought today from the Bluebird Books bookshop, 20 percent of their profits will be donated to the Ivy Creek Foundation. So please buy books—many, many books—today. Now if you’d like to just make a donation to the Ivy Creek Foundation, go see Lorna at our table or go to IvyCreekFoundation.org.
It is now my absolute pleasure to introduce Susie Farmer, our director of education, who is a talented historian and lover of nature. And I get to work and learn from her every day. Susie?
SUSIE FARMER: Hello. I’m so happy to be here and be a part of this, and we’re happy to have you all. I just wanted to take a couple minutes to tell you a little bit about Ivy Creek Natural Area and River View Farm. As you know, we are a 219-acre nature preserve with seven miles’ worth of trails. So we hope that, if you haven’t been out on our trails, that you will come and explore them. We have lots of free programming coming up in the next few months. So if you haven’t signed up for our newsletter, Lorna would be happy to sign you up so that you can keep up to date with everything that we’re doing. If you’re on social media, we’re also on Facebook and Instagram, and you can follow us there. In December of 2020, we became a part of the National Register of Historic Places due to the importance of River View Farm and the contributions that the family made to the community. So please get one of our brochures about the farm or talk to me, and I’d be happy to tell you more about that.
So today I would like to introduce our moderator, Lilia Fuquen. She is a community engagement consultant with a focus on ecological, agricultural, and land-based education programs. Lilia is also a worker-member of the Blue Stem Collective, a local nonprofit native plant nursery working to cultivate a resilient future for central Virginia’s land and people, human and otherwise. So thank you very much.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you. Hi. Is this working? Can folks hear me? Welcome again, everybody. And thank you for taking care of all of those housekeeping items. One more I wanted to add is that after this event both Kat and Georgann will be available to sign books if you purchase them over there. Kat is in the middle of the inaugural day of her nine-month-long Foundations class for herbalism students. So she took time to run here today, and she’ll need to run out as soon as she’s done signing books. So just a reminder that if you’re going to purchase a book and have it signed to do that quickly for both Kat and Georgann.
So I want to first thank this land for welcoming us here today in such beautiful fashion. Some of us had to go to our cars and get our emergency sun hats. Let’s see what else. That’s all the housekeeping. Great.
So welcome to Preserving and Using Native Plants. I’m going to introduce both Georgann and Kat quickly. Georgann Eubanks is a writer and Emmy Award–winning documentarian. Georgann has published poetry, fiction, profiles, reviews, and essays in many magazines and journals, including Southern Cultures, South Writ Large, Our State, and Oxford American. She was director of the Duke Writers Workshop for twenty years and since 2000 she has been a principal in Minnow Media, LLC, a multimedia company that primarily creates independent documentaries for public television. Georgann’s most recent book is Saving the Wild South: The Fight for Native Plants on the Brink of Extinction. Georgann has traveled to Charlottesville from her home in North Carolina for this event. Thank you, Georgann, for making the trip up here.
Kat Maier is the author of Energetic Herbalism: A Guide to Sacred Plant Traditions Integrating Elements of Vitalism, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine. Kat has been a practicing clinical herbalist for over thirty years. She is the founder and director of Sacred Plant Traditions: A Center for Herbal Studies here in Charlottesville, Virginia, and has taught nationally as well as internationally. Kat is a founding member of Botanica Mobile Clinic, a nonprofit dedicated to providing accessible herbal medicine to local communities. And she served as president of United Plant Savers, the other UPS, and was the inaugural recipient of the organization’s Medicinal Plant Conservation Award. Thank you for joining us today, Kat.
So in these books, Georgann and Kat trace their own research and journeys into deep appreciation for sensitive ecosystems. Both books are about plants and people, but they’re actually very different from each other. One thing they do have in common is that they’re about the profound relationships between plants and humans, relationships that have the power to change us as individual human beings and the landscape as a whole. They introduce us to a number of plants and share histories of how humans have interacted with those plants, bringing us to today’s state of affairs. [Indiscernible] despair when we look at the impact humans are having on the plant world, but Kat and Georgann offer real actionable and accessible steps we can all take to become better stewards of this place we call home and our non-human neighbors.
Georgann takes us on her trek from Alabama to North Carolina, introducing us to twelve species of plants and folks who are working alongside those plants to support them. Saving the Wild South is about plants most people [indiscernible] and some folks who know those plants best, folks Georgann calls conservation heroes of the wild south. And the book introduces some of the complex systems of organizations and policies at play in governing the future of those plants. Georgann’s vivid storytelling brought many tears [indiscernible]. And once I even found myself checking for ticks because I felt like I too was out on a hike in the great southern wild.
Kat’s book guides us in learning about ourselves and our environment through medicinal plants and how we can develop the most intimate of relationships with them. Energetic Herbalism is actually Kat’s three-year curriculum textbook in her clinical training program, yet her intention was to make an in-depth manual for families and individuals dedicated to learning how to tend themselves and their friends on a deeper level. This book is accessible to beginners as well as practitioners alike. She, like Georgann, conveys her deep teachings about Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic practices, as well as Western herbalism through storytelling from her thirty years of clinical practice. Kat’s book also offers step-by-step instructions and recipes, equipping readers with a solid foundation in herbalism, empowering us to get out there and begin relating with plants.
So we’re going to jump right into it. And maybe, Georgann, would you be willing to do a reading for us?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Sure.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Am I on? Yes, good. So it’s an honor to be here, and thanks to Lilia for organizing us and for the Virginia Festival’s generosity in making this possible. I’m honored to be here with Kat, who is apparently a Virginia botanical rock star. So it’s an honor to be with you.
I make a living as a writer based on my ignorance. All of the books that I’ve done—and this is number five—have been journeys to learn something I didn’t know. So I’m not a botanist. I’m not an expert. And I’ve told some of the serious botanists who picked up my book to say this is a book that you give to your family who doesn’t understand what you do. Because this is pretty simple—simple storytelling about some plants that are very important.
Driving up here yesterday from North Carolina, several times I saw patches of river cane on the side of the road. River cane is a native plant to the South. It is a bamboo. There are three kinds of bamboo that we have in the South that are endemic to this geography. It’s a great flood mitigator. It’s a carbon sink. It is literally a wind rake, and it’s an important plant that is not endangered. But I picked it for the book because it is so critical to so many insects and birds. So I’m going to read to you just a little section from Chapter 8 on river cane.
Today in some spots in the Appalachian Mountains where historic place names often include the word cane, farmers swear by the value of canebrakes, which have protected their topsoil through recent hurricanes. Other folks elsewhere may be inclined to shake their heads when they see a patch of river cane, mistaking it for Asian bamboo, and they pity the poor landowner who was foolish enough to plant it in the first place because it grows so well.
But the South’s native river cane creates a habitat like no other, providing refuge from predators for many species of songbirds—cardinals, evening grosbeaks, indigo buntings, hooded warblers, and water threshes. The shy Swainson’s warbler, which migrates at night and is vulnerable to collisions with the communications towers that have gone up all across the region, also depends on the river cane for habitat.
The Bachman’s warbler, last sighted in 1988 and believed to be extinct, once thrived in southern canebrakes along with the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon discussed in Chapter 4. One of John James Audubon’s best-known portraits is of a male wild turkey set against a background in river cane. According to the biologist Stephen Platt, historical accounts of river cane often mention the great flocks of wild turkey that once occupied the stands of cane.
As many as six species of butterflies depend on river cane in the caterpillar phase, and five moth species feed on the plant. Small mammals like mice, shrews, swamp rabbits, and voles all take shelter in canebrakes and feed on cane seed when it arrives. The canebrake rattlesnake got its name from its favorite habitat too.
Canebrakes served as reliable hunting spots for Native Americans, who fashioned arrows, spears, blowguns, and darts from river cane. And another cane native only to the Appalachian Mountains, Arundinaria appalachiana, or hill cane as it is now known, is a smaller solid cane, recently determined to be a special species. Hill cane is deciduous and tends to grow along ridge tops.
In times past, canebrakes provided refuge to human beings, enslaved people on the run in the South. Poor whites, sometimes called canebrake crackers, and those whom Art Stewart described as assorted hooligans who found a haven in these dense thickets of the margins.
For me, river cane conjures sweet memories tied to place and family. I fished as a child in Georgia with cane poles that my grandfather chopped and dried in his garage and strung with a hook and lead sinker on a monofilament fishing line. Bomer Henry Eubanks was born in 1893 in Cullman, Alabama, where native cane grew far and wide on the banks of the rivers. Among his people, cane poles were put to practical use to stake tomatoes, trellis beans, and catch fish. Bomer grew a patch of cane that served as a screen between his side yard and the neighbors. From this thicket, Bomer would judiciously select a few stalks of just the right cane circumference and chop them out for fishing poles. He hung them by their narrow tips in the garage to make sure they stayed straight as they seasoned. Bomer always had several on hand for the two of us, already strung their full length with filament and equipped with hooks and bobbers. River cane makes an amazingly flexible fishing pole. The jointed segments can bend without shattering. The wood itself, a more or less hollow pipe, eventually turns yellow as it dries. And once dried out, it remains strong and limber.
“You want to run the fishing line all the way from one end of the pole to the other,” Bomer explained to me one day, “in case the tip breaks off from the weight of a really big fish. You’ll still have the line and can keep hold of him with the piece of pole that’s left.”
I was never happier than on the bank of his modest pond we grandly called a lake, using earthworms that he pitchforked from the compost pile behind his tool shed for bait. I learned to wait for the red-and-white bobber to disappear underwater before I pulled hard on my pole to raise a glistening redbreast sunfish or opalescent bluegill, both species of brim that he had stocked years earlier.
We always ate what we caught, dusted in cornmeal and flash fried in corn oil by my grandmother Stella before sunset on summer evenings. She served the crispy fish with more cornmeal, quail egg–sized hushpuppies laced with chopped onion and a delicate cabbage slaw heaped in chilled mounds on the plate. We drank sweet iced tea, sometimes garnished with mint from Stella’s bed of herbs.
Suburban mansions surround that half-drained pond today. When I visited the last time a decade ago, it looked little more than a reflecting pool. A platform and fountain had been built in the middle of the pond to produce a weak spire of water. The huge houses left little open shoreline. I suspect the bluegill and brim are gone, as is Bomer’s stand of river cane.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you, Georgann. The questions I had prepared—well, let’s start with this journey that you took and the book follows and takes us on that journey with you—how did you decide on the twelve plants, out of all that you were learning and discovering and meeting? How did you come to the list that you offer us?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Well, I was aiming to cover six states: North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and Tennessee. And so I knew there were biodiversity hotspots in all of those states. And so I began to sort of look at the big picture. And then I drilled down, wanting to give sort of geographic equity across the six states and looked for plants that had really good stories.
In this case, river cane had a personal story. Some of the other plants had just downright peculiar stories, like the Miccosukee gooseberry, which occurs only in two little patches in South Carolina and Florida. And the gooseberries are inedible. But when they were first discovered in 1924, people were so excited. They thought they’d found a new food product for America, which turned out to be not true. But investigating that, I found out the stories of the compulsive botanists who traipsed all over this region. So I love that chapter.
I took my list of twelve to fifteen plants to Alan Weekley, who is our North Carolina botanical rock star. And I said what do you think, and he gave me some really good advice, and I followed with those twelve plants. Which twelve plants is nothing. They’re not all endangered according to federal regulation, which is kind of a catch-22 anyway. There’s a sunflower, for example, that grows in South Carolina and North Carolina that the Catawba Indians would like to cultivate on their land because the roots are kind of like Jerusalem artichokes, and the tribe once ate them as a regular part of their diet. And for food sovereignty, they’d like to grow the plant on the reservation. But it’s federal property, so they can’t grow them unless they can prove that they’ll be protected and have enough of them there for them to harvest. So there’s all kinds of irony in the policy side of this, which is actually my training—is public policy.
LILIA FUQUEN: You talk in your book about something called plant blindness. Can you explain that for us?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Yeah. So in the mid-2000s, a couple of botanists from the South started getting the sense that children really—and even adults—didn’t really—couldn’t distinguish between individual plants. For those of you who are plant enthusiasts and you weed, you know how satisfying it is to pull the right plant and not the wrong plant when you’re out weeding in the garden. But for many of us, they found it’s just a blurry green backdrop. And what gains our attention in a setting like this are the humans, the animals that are moving. The animate creatures. And we have a preference. The charismatic animals always get preference over the plants. So when the Endangered Species Act was passed in the sixties, plants weren’t on it. It was a decade before they said, oh, maybe we should attend to some plants, and they added three thousand to the list.
So this plant blindness—they did a survey of high school graduates, and they found that 70 percent of the graduates they talked to—and this was in 2006—had never planted a plant by themselves. Ten percent had never read a book—they couldn’t remember a book they’d read that had plants at its center. And some of them had never picked fruit from a tree.
What we have now because of this plant blindness is the reduction of programs of botany and horticulture in our universities around the world actually. And yes there are environmental studies programs, but people are not learning taxonomy. They’re not studying botany in the way that it was a hundred years ago. And that’s a cause for concern because funding has also been reduced for these programs of study. And we need all the young people we can get working on these conservation issues out there. And I met some of them and they’re wonderful, but we need more.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you. One last question. And at the end we’re going to open it up to Q&A, so hold your questions please everybody. So there’s a particular plant that you describe in the book, and you dedicate a whole chapter to the Cahaba lily. And that particular plant and that chapter really pulled together your theme throughout of plants giving us humans a sense of place. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Right. So this is another plant that’s not on the endangered list, but it only occurs in a river in South Carolina, two rivers in Georgia, and mainly in one river in Alabama where it’s called the Cahaba lily. It blooms between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and it has become kind of a signature plant for a tiny town in Alabama that hosts a festival to celebrate the Cahaba lily. And people bring their lawn chairs, and people in their walkers go down to the river and see these lilies that come up from between the rocks from bulbs. And it’s a grand celebration. A town of 1200 people has the lily on their town flag. And it has sort of brought new life to the community.
Meanwhile, upstream in Birmingham, where the Cahaba begins, there is now a Cahaba River Society, which has discovered that they were not addressing the entire Birmingham community. They really wanted to get the entire what they call the people shed engaged in knowing the river, helping to preserve the lilies, and to pass legislation that’s not federal to protect them. They’re protecting them locally. And they’ve engaged parts of the African American urban community. Some of the kids—one of the guides told me she had a child who came down to the river and said he’d never touched a tree before because he had lived his whole life in the city of Birmingham. So they’re doing environmental education, and they are engaging across racial divides, and the result is that this white lily—of all the ironic things, this white lily has become a metaphor for building community around nature in Birmingham and on down the Cahaba River, which is one of the few rivers in Alabama that has never had an impoundment put on it. So the lilies are a great celebration every year and somehow lovely that they bloom between Mother’s and Father’s Day.
LILIA FUQUEN: That it is. Thank you, Georgann. So we’ll come back to questions for Georgann after Kat. Would you be willing to give us a reading?
KAT MAIER: I’d love to. So we’re on. So again, I also want to give thanks to the Virginia Festival of the Book. Jane has just tended us brilliantly, giving clear instructions and helping us get to the right place at the right time. And just all the volunteers have been stellar. So I really want to thank them. And I’m here at Ivy Creek with my classes all the time, so this kind of feels like home.
So, I’m reading from the chapter “Medicine of Place.” So, as Lilia said, this is my three-year curriculum. It is herbal medicine, and it’s also for individuals because I really feel when we understand that we really literally are fire, wood, air, metal, we can deeply, deeply relate to our environment. So, all of the traditional—from indigenous, indigenous Chinese, indigenous Indian—all of the systems that have survived have survived because they are based in the truths of nature. Fire is always fire, and climate change will bring more fire, but we can learn how to cool our bodies. What are the herbs? What are the foods? How do we work with our environment? So, this is my invitation for everyone to begin to have a lens of their body as all the elements and how to relate to that so you can really understand that foods as well as activities can deeply, deeply affect our bodies. And help us again relate. I think the only conversations these days are climate justice, so it’s a roundabout way to really address that.
So, this is called “Medicine of Places.” This is one of my favorite chapters. The others are about Chinese medicine and describing the systems. And absolutely magnificent templates, and the tapestries that have held true for thousands of years really bear fruit for that. So, “Medicine of Place.”
Plants are the ultimate alchemist, and the land a plant calls home is part of its medicine story. This is really where the apothecary practices begin. When we harvest and work with a medicine, we are gathering so much more than simply the leaf or flower or root. Early on in my herbalist journey, as I began observing plant medicines living in their natural habitat, I closed the books and learned to see the patterns emerge. I watched where the trees and plants chose to live. I hiked along streams for days on end, where I saw hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), wood nettle (Urtica urens), Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), and other water-loving plants thrive.
Through my observations of where these plants chose to grow, I came to understand that their medicines will affect the kidneys and the cyst and the flow of the body’s water. Medicine of place is the archetype of where the plant thrives.
Desert medicines have a high content of aromatic oils to protect them from intense heat. Artemisias and plants in the sage family bring stringency and clarity, qualities that many seek from desert venues in times of visioning. These are the physical offerings plants gift us from their unique environment. We can taste and smell the very topography that these plants call home. This is one way in which place becomes medicine.
Author and acupuncturist Eliot Cowan wrote, “Place is more than an incidental backdrop. Place has spirit, personality, and sacred purpose. Place is the starring actor in every drama, and without the star the show can’t go on.”
Every year I take students to visit Robbie Wooding’s herb farm in southwest Virginia. Robbie is a fifth-generation farmer who has tended this land using the same tools and drying sheds from generations past. The purpose of the trip is to meet the endangered American ginseng and goldenseal (Hydrastic canadensis) who preceded his family’s arrival on the land and also to witness and experience what a generational farm feels like. It doesn’t take long for the palpable energy created by continuous habituation of place by generations of loving stewards to touch the students’ hearts. Boundaries begin to soften. They drop out of the routine of modern life and sink into a world held by stories from traditions born of the land. Robbie’s ginseng is some of the finest I have ever tasted. It is medicine from multitudes of seasons, creating rich woodland humus as well as personal relationship of tending the wild beds. We acknowledge the work done by this generation and the stories of the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who tended this land. We engage in conversations of how to make reparations for this unceded territory of Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation and then how to turn these thoughts into actions.
Sadly, it is no longer the norm for families to live on the land where their grandparents, or even parents, lived. The reasons for dislocation from one’s family/ancestral home are many. There is no requirement though to own land to begin to relate to place, and where you begin to relate to place does not matter. Whether you live in an apartment complex, subdivision, or a home in the country, homeownership is far from a prerequisite. In fact, the ownership notion is very [indiscernible]. The destructive concept of owning land has been only a part of Earth’s history. We honor, nourish, and sing to plants anywhere.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you, Kat. And I can share that as a former student of yours, I loved visiting Robbie’s farm and hearing his stories and seeing the ginseng that his family and community members have tended for generations.
KAT MAIER: Yeah, one point I wanted to say is—and we might talk about this. But United Plant Savers is an organization of saving native plants. But the beautiful thing about going to Robbie’s is here we are teaching herbal medicine and where to buy them and how to harvest them. And we go down and we harvest bark. And this is the weekend where we learned that incredible art, that craft in harvesting bark. So we spend all weekend with a draw blade and rasping the outer bark off and bringing in the slips of it and drying it and packaging it. And then we say would you ever do all of this for $16 a pound. So the point is to really unite practitioners and individuals that this isn’t just a commodity. You’re not ordering this. This is years in growing this. So that’s one of the thrilling parts, is to really make that connection to what are we ordering, what are we taking when we want this medicine that we so love.
LILIA FUQUEN: Later on in that same chapter, you mentioned two words that I would love for you to dive into. One is solastalgia, and the other is bioregionalism, which is something I’m sure many of us here know and embody in some way. But can you tell us a little bit about why you bring those up in your chapter “Medicine of Place”?
KAT MAIER: Sure. Solastagia is a word that was coined by an Australian environmental philosopher. He’s a professor of sustainable systems. I think we need to begin to look beyond even agriculture and all the multi-layered tiers. That we’re really beginning to think what are these practices. And so he came up with this term, and it’s interesting how climate change is really bringing in new language. So, this is very, very important because we are experiencing emotions and sensations that we haven’t. So, solastagia—nostalgia—is missing. We’ve moved away from home, and we’re missing it. We’re nostalgic. Solastagia is maybe what you felt when you returned to that pond. And even though the pond was there, we are grieving places that we’re losing because of environmental change.
It doesn’t have to be uranium mining and climate change. I live in Belmont, and I’m deeply grieving the change of the culture. The development, the choices, the City Council, policymaker, federal, city level.
What’s so important—and this is such a great topic on the beginning of spring because my native teachers always say to grieve is to become fully human. And grief is the highest form of praise. And what happens so often is we’re inundated. We’re overwhelmed. We’re losing so many things that we just don’t have time for grief. And grief is very frightening. Americans don’t grieve really well. So, when you gather together in community and it’s like the good old days. I lived in Sperryville, and they would sit around and talk about the farms or what’s been losing, but they had this community. And I think the solastalgia is important to acknowledge and process and bring together on a community level so that that itself empowers us. All right, I grieved it. I let it go. I felt it. I wasn’t afraid. Now let’s go plant the plants. Let’s go plant the trees or let’s go circle around the older environments that really need protection.
And so bioregionalism is working—for me, bioregional medicine is working with plants that you gather in your area. When I first started in Rappahannock County, I was this radical, probably obnoxious at times, avid bioregionalist, and I only worked with medicines that I could harvest. In the woods, in the prairies, in the farms. And I have to tell you I did many, many things as I traveled, as I met students, as I met teachers, of course my apothecary grew. I fell in love with certain plants from all around the world. And I realized this cannot be sustained. Whether it’s the transportation to get it from India, to get it from Tibet. And the interesting thing is JR Worsley—Eliot Cowan was a teacher of mine. His teacher JR Worsley brought five-phase acupuncture here, and he [indiscernible], when you harvest medicine within a fifty-mile radius of where you live, the potency is much, much stronger.
I’m sure there’s some quantum discussion of how that happens, but I also love to uphold mystery, and the amazing aspect that these plants are in relationships with us. So bioregionalism is that practice as best you can.
So, I love that Georgann took twelve plants, and I might be the only herbal ever written that only has twenty-five plants. Usually there’s a hundred plants. But these are plants that I think in every single bioregion of the United States and parts of Canada everybody can harvest because they’re the [indiscernible]. These are the European—this is yarrow and dandelion and nettle. These aren’t the natives so much. These are plants that we all have direct access for.
LILIA FUQUEN: And to follow that, we’re seeing so many plants losing habitat, in decline. Some are disappearing entirely. So, how can we tend those plant communities while still engaging in a relationship where we bring them into our bodies for the support they give us.
KAT MAIER: That’s the million-dollar question. And one experience of the book that answers that—I had the deep honor of having Lara Call Gastinger, who is the botanical illustrator of Flora of Virginia, which is a major, major tool of conservation. And all of her botanicals are just absolutely stunning. And what Lara does—why she is such an amazing illustrator is she really illustrates from live specimens. So, she would come over to my garden when she could, and she would harvest the roots of goldenseal and take them home and draw them and then plant them in her yard. So, just the whole ceremony, if you will, of having that exchange take place is about sharing, is about regeneration.
So, there’s two schools of thought here. There is the conservation through use. So, there’s this whole concept that if we do not use these plants they will fall out of use. And what’s interesting is 10,000 years ago when [indiscernible] arrived in Yosemite or what was the land, he came upon this phenomenal farce and garden and bulbs and lupines, and he thought this was nature. And that was planted. Native peoples have been planting, have been doing agriculture—they’ve been tending the years—10,000 years before that. They have land management practices that are out of this world, and there is now of course [indiscernible] called traditional ecological knowledge. It’s TEK. And so. they’re teaching this. How to burn. How to avoid the tragedies that we’re having. And native peoples have these tools. And I think how generous they are to have the federal government is going to them, asking them to help them save the wilderness, and god love them, they’re rising and they’re sharing. And their notion—they don’t have a word for wilderness because when you abandon land, that’s abandoned—when no one’s there, that’s an abandonment.
So, there is definitely an important part of our engagement—you know, the old ginseng hunters, that was their livelihood. So, they had to put the seeds back. They had to put the berries. They had to come back to the hollers year after year. So, that was important.
Now with the tragic opioid crisis in the ginseng—the pounds of ginseng and cohosh that are out on the black market—they are disappearing at rapid, rapid rates.
So, where I land in this conversation is that there’s something called analogs. And an analog is a plant that you can use instead of. So, for black cohosh and hot flashes, for [indiscernible] components. Guess what the analog is? It’s the plant that’s eating the South, kudzu. Kudzu has steroids, right? [Indiscernible], it’s steroidal, it’s on the move. So, learning what medicines that we can use instead of. And then when we do use the natives, that we use them in drop doses. And I have goldenseal taking over my yard in Belmont. So, we can plant these plants. They’re very, very—in suburbia wherever you are, just plant them. They’ll tell you if they’re happy or not or they want to be moved.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Can I add something? I’m still learning as I’m doing a book tour and meeting people, but I recently learned that the principle of local and the strength of the plant is true for us. And we need to educate ourselves about what our native plants are and then try to find seeds that are as close to where we live and not from far away, and our chances of success are greater.
I also learned recently that—another point about educating ourselves—that everybody—a lot of people have jumped on the bandwagon of protecting the monarch butterfly. And I was in a presentation with an entomologist from the University of Florida who told the audience that unfortunately if you buy milkweed plants at big box stores, there’s a good chance that those plants were cultivated with pesticides. And if your caterpillars eat those plants, they will die. So we’re actually doing harm when we think we’re doing good, and we need to find the right suppliers for our plants. It’s so critical. Education is so important, and if you just learn a little bit about the butterflies, you haven’t learned enough.
LILIA FUQUEN: So, one question for the two of you. Native plants have adapted over generations and sometimes thousands of years to place, including the fungi and insects and mammals, including us, of that place. But as humans, we so often find ourselves as newcomers in a place because we’re so transient. What do you think we can learn from native plants about being good neighbors?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: What comes to mind is a great misfortune that—and I’m not going to dump on landscapers. But I think also our educational systems—people who learn landscaping work from a very small palette. And that native plants—the true natives of an area are not necessarily what people learn in landscape school to plant. So, we have this sort of monolithic way that new developments are planted, and the plants are not natives. And then they’re over watered with sprinkler systems that are built in.
So, I think—if I turn that into what can we learn from plants, it is diversity is really good. And get to know your neighbors and honor your neighbors and don’t live in a monochrome situation. Does that make sense? You’re the expert.
KAT MAIER: No, you are the expert. I will say I got totally lost last night in Georgann’s website. Just incredible writing pieces. So, aside from her book, there’s such a wealth. So, what can we learn from the natives? Well possibly in ten thousand years honeysuckle is going to be native. I always take the Carl Sagan viewpoint here of four and a half billion years this gorgeous planet has been here, and I’m sure the native species has changed.
We’ve had five extinctions, and so nativism is really relative, if you will. So, yes it is really important to preserve and protect. When you look at ginseng, I love how ginseng survived the ice age. So, we think we have stress, but imagine being a rooted creature and here comes the ice age. And we’re getting to that place, but.
So, what happens is the plants then create a chemistry that adapts to that change, and then we take that medicine, and that medicine goes to our kidneys and our adrenals, and that’s why it helps stress. That’s why it helps every organ in the body. So, when we observe who are the plants and how are they living and how are they reproducing, that’s the medicine. They are not made for us. In their incredible spirit and generosity, they have multiple layers of medicine for us, so they adapt. They’re constantly adapting. And I totally agree with Georgann. There’s that brilliant seed bank in Norway. And it’s not Monsanto. It’s brilliant scientists and artists, and they’re saving seeds. But the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary—why we’re really trying to teach this is, is that these are the seed repositories. So just as Georgann was saying, when you get seeds locally, that will have transition. Say I have black cohosh for fifty years. That’s a fifty-year seed that has morphed according to Charlottesville temperature. So, it adapts. It knows that. Versus going to some other catalog. And we have to really support our seed growers. But collecting seeds—I’m still a novice at it. I really want to learn much better how to collect my local seeds and keep them in the area. So, I think that’s how to be a good neighbor.
And to create corridors. Don’t think just because you live in an urban area you cannot have a wildlife corridor. If you just have your neighbors planting certain plants—you go plant—I’ve only gotten our street in Belmont done, but that’s a corridor. And the word gets out. There’s a whole other form of communication with the winged ones. And word’s out where to find the yummy stuff.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: And as southerners, in my experience if you drive down a road—Donna Campbell, who’s here today (the photographer for the book), we’ve driven down many a road, and something catches on in a neighborhood. It might be the day lilies or it might be gardenia or it might be a clematis on the mailbox. And suddenly you see them all down the road. It’s like we have a natural tendency, at least in this territory, to do that sort of thing—mimic our neighbors and perpetuate bad things sometimes but also wonderful native plants.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you. Thank you both. So, would you be willing to open it up to audience questions?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Absolutely.
LILIA FUQUEN: All right. Does anybody have a question for Kat or for Georgann?
GEORGANN EUBANKS: There’s one.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello. You were talking about the Cahaba in Alabama and two other states. What I wanted to know is why does it just grow on these three basic areas.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Well, it grows on rocks, and the rocks are usually located in the river along the Fall Line. And the impoundments upstream can actually—on the Catawba River in South Carolina, we went to see—on the peak day it’s wonderful. This is also the flower that’s on the cover of the book. Two weeks after we left seeing those lilies, Duke Energy, which is the power company that built all the impoundments, let a hundred thousand gallons’ worth of sewage (by accident) loose on the river. So these impoundments—sometimes they need to lower the water level in lakes that are surrounded by suburban communities to Charlotte. And that water comes, and the lilies are under water. And apparently that sort of situation is what has diminished the number of populations of these lilies. You don’t see them every year on the Broad River in Georgia because of water from the Savannah River. The Cahaba is the only river and has purportedly—at least according to the small town of West Blocton, Alabama, has the largest collection of lilies on that river. And it is because it’s not impounded and the water levels of more conducive.
These bulbs sit on the rocks and send their shoots up. And when they first learned in Alabama that this was maybe going to become an endangered species, people started poaching the bulbs and hoping to grow them at home in their buckets or pots. And of course it takes moving water and the river itself to grow these lilies, so you can’t grow them at home. And they got a local ordinance so they could stop the poaching in Alabama.
So, as if sewage leaks and impoundments weren’t enough, then the people come in and go after the precious species, which is the case of the pitcher plants, of course. People get big money for pitcher plants in the black market.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Here comes the microphone.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This question is for Kat. You mentioned the honeysuckle. [Indiscernible] endemic or native [indiscernible]. And I thought why isn’t it already considered endemic, and how long does it take for a plant to be considered endemic?
KAT MAIER: Well, there is a native honeysuckle, so that might have not been the best example to use. And the native honeysuckle is all over my railings and our home because of hummingbirds. So I really think the choice of plants as well—you know, Doug Tallamy wrote that phenomenal book on oaks. And I think one oak tree hosts 562 species. And that’s unbelievable. So when we’re choosing landscape and when we’re choosing plants, I think now with such a paucity of habitat for insects and birds, we can look to that, and there’s [indiscernible].
So, there’s the Lonicera, the Japanese honeysuckle, which kind of is coming in and taking over. Or some of the more invasive plants. So, what I was saying is—sort of glibly—but we’re holding on to how natives now, but what was native ten thousand years ago. And yes we can look at genotype, and a lot of these plants have been here. But things are going to change, and we have to really allow for change. There’s this incredible acupuncturist who works only with Lyme, and Lyme is such a devastating disease, and most of the medicines are invasive plants. Is a honeysuckle [indiscernible] antioxidants. So, there’s a relationship.
And I would never be so naïve as to say, oh, maybe Mother Earth is bringing us these medicines and we should let them be invasive, and also I think we really want to observe. Who is coming? Who is the succession afterwards? Kudzu is one of the Chinese top fifty herbs. They use kudzu in almost every formula. So, I would never plant a kudzu. Don’t worry. But it’s, okay, who’s here? What do we have? And begin to understand a little bit more why are they coming.
So, we do have a native Japanese honeysuckle. And [indiscernible] and that’s important. Thank you. Thank you for doing that. But looking to the pollinators is essential. And also, again, where you’re getting [indiscernible]. It makes such a difference. Because in effect they’re reproductive cycles. Toxins affect our reproduction. The same thing is happening with the monarch.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Thank you for being here. And this is for both of you. I have a lifelong conundrum that I’ve been wrestling with, with some of the language—like even invasive—regarding plants that have adapted to areas that we have inadvertently laid waste to.
I used to be a park ranger up at Shenandoah National Park, and I saw a lot of money and time and effort spent on eradicating invasives for years. I also saw areas that were completely stripped bare from landslides after the floods in ’95 quickly be restored by quote-unquote invasive plants coming in and stabilizing the remaining soils and allowing for the successional stages to begin once again in those areas that were really ripped clean and down to bedrock.
I worry that our view is so anthropocentric and short-sighted that we’re not really valuing these quote-unquote invasives for the roles they do play for the betterment in the longest term, in terms of time. Because we’re so impatient and we do have an aesthetic that we demand takes precedence over anything else at the detriment of many different plants and animals and insects. And I’m just curious how you two see this issue. Because I really struggle with it, and it alienates me from people who are true native people—native plant people, I should say. And I see extinction as part of life, and I see whole communities of plants dying and leaving the earth because we’ve changed it to the point that they are no longer able to live here.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you. So, the question is—do you understand the question? Okay, we only have a couple of minutes left, so.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Again, I defer to Kat. But I have experienced—I think you’re right about the conundrum, and we are lazy, so we use things to poison the invasives and then poison ourselves and everything around it. I once had an argument with a guy who came to my cabin up in the mountains of North Carolina, and he had to get rid of this one tree under the power line, and he wanted to put [indiscernible] on it, and I said no, and he said, “Yes, I have to do this,” and then he went into the thing about how lazy we are as humans. And when you see the kind of energy that goes into removing invasives by folks who are literally pulling things up and trying to use as little herbicide as possible, it’s a conundrum. So I think you’re right that extinction is part of life. But she probably has more.
KAT MAIER: You’re making my day, girl. I thought this was good enough, but to have you deferring to me. So, well that’s sort of what I was just saying. I wouldn’t be naïve to say it’s all good. I do not believe it’s all good. I believe it all is. And there’s a lot that is not good. Tallow Ryan wrote a magnificent book, Everything Gardens, in working with managing invasives and how to ecologically allow them, bring them in. When I hike up White Oak Canyon, my heart breaks watching the cleavers and garlic mustard totally take over the hepaticas and trilliums and that incredibly tender ecosystem there. And I might have brought a few mustard—I know we’re being recorded and we can’t do anything in the national park. But it’s citizens’ science, right? So we just really have to observe. And if we have small areas that we can protect—ancient, ancient plants—and for me the beauty of the natives is they hold a history and a memory that we cannot replicate. And they hold stories, and they hold eons and epochs that, for me, to save that is to save anthology. It’s to save a time, in a way, and understanding what that is. And they’re space holders. They hold a place within the pantheon of woodland beings and the intelligence.
So, it’d be like analogs. There’s two herbalists and there’s some out there I know, and you could use them instead of me, but we’re very different. We’re very, very different. And yes, one will work. So, I totally share all native at all costs, and we have to find that balance. And this is the conversation. This is right now, in our history on the planet, how do we come together, and how do we allow everyone to have their view and to be heard? To really hear their passion. We don’t know if they’re a reincarnated Thomas Bartram, and they could be coming back, and this is their mission. But there is incredible medicine, and a lot of the invasives were brought in [indiscernible]. So, they’re coming in and doing the job that the Army Corps of Engineers intended them to do. And it’s finding that balance and also realizing plants are more than meets the eye and how to hold on to that.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: I also think that all of us can do something—a little something—probably every day now that it’s spring that contributes to the betterment of our circumstances. And I would encourage us all to think about the ways that we can do that: using local seeds, finding the right folks, taking your kids to a botanical garden and teach them, take them to an arboretum and introduce them to trees. Everybody can do something almost every day.
LILIA FUQUEN: I also like to think about how, just like humans, plants become naturalized to place. So, for example, I am a naturalized US citizen, and that’s because I for some reason met some requirement and met some criteria and was allowed citizenship to a place. And I think that we do that in many different ways and sometimes not consciously with plants. So, that’s a different way of looking [indiscernible]. But are these members of the community that we’re going to welcome.
So, I just want to ask you one last question before we close up because we’ve reached time, everybody. For both of you. This is the first day of spring, and what is one native plant that you’re super excited to see again?
KAT MAIER: Well, I walked down this morning and there was bloodroot. And I’m trying to stay in the present, and bloodroot is always a harbinger of spring for me. And can I read one more thing just in response to that? Very short. Natasha Myers is a Canadian young artist and scientist. And I just wanted to say plants are responding to climate change in ways we cannot begin to imagine. This is what artist, scientist, and anthropologist Natasha Myers refers to in her discussion or renaming the Anthropocene epoch to the Planthropocene. By this she means redefining this geological time, placing plants at center stage, allowing them to define technological directions. We need to follow their lead, engage in research and models and investigation that gives space to observe adaptations. We need to give the plants agency as intelligent, evolutionary beings that have infinitely more experience at adaptation than we do. So I’ll go back to the bloodroot.
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Well, I haven’t been up to my cabin in the Blue Ridge, but my bee balm is coming up in the front of my condo. And I’m president of the HOA, so I plant native plants in my front yard.
LILIA FUQUEN: Thank you. Thank you very much. Is there anything else you wanted [indiscernible].
GEORGANN EUBANKS: Thank you all. Thank you all for being here. It’s lovely to celebrate this day with you.
KAT MAIER: And Lilia, thank you. She also [indiscernible]. Thank you so much.
LILIA FUQUEN: [Indiscernible] Ivy Creek Foundation and Virginia Humanities. Please tweet. Please go buy a book at the bookmobile. And then come on over for your book to be signed. Thank you all for joining us.
“There’s great urgency when it comes to saving threatened plants, and Saving the Wild South is an inspiring, journalistic overview of endangered and important species, with broad appeal for gardeners and conservationists.” —Foreword Reviews
“Eubanks’s determined journey to see these plants and talk to those who are trying to preserve biodiversity in the wild South make this book revelatory, joyous and sobering.” ―Southern Review of Books
“This amazing book almost leaves me speechless. Energetic Herbalism integrates the many different sources that flow into modern herbalism into an integrated conception and practice. Although the book is directed for the home herbalist, it is also a textbook for beginner to advanced levels, to be treasured and assimilated over many years…. This book touches upon everything that I hold dear in herbal medicine, founded upon the real experience of Nature as a living, intelligent, spiritual being.” ―Matthew Wood, author of The Book of Herbal Wisdom
“I always ask my students: Do you want to be a good herbalist or a great herbalist? One of the essentials necessary to achieve a high level of herbal practice is the study of herbal energetics. In Energetic Herbalism, Kat Maier has distilled the teachings of the world’s great herbal traditions into a concise, easy to learn guide that will allow any herbalist to begin to treat each person as an individual rather than generically treating diseases, and in so doing, to truly achieve excellence.” ―David Winston, author of Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief
Virginia Festival of the Book staff, volunteers, partners, and attendees appreciate all of our sponsors. It is their crucial support, along with individual donors, that allows us to present the 2022 Virginia Festival of the Book almost completely free of charge. We appreciate the generous commitment from our Premier Sponsor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and these major sponsors: Michelle and David Baldacci, Dominion Energy, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
We appreciate the support of our community partners for helping share information about this event: Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, Ivy Creek Foundation, The Little Bluestem Collective