by Richard Mandelbaum
Many people do not realize that wild orchids grow in North America. In fact, there are quite a few native and naturalized species belonging to the Orchid family (Orchidaceae) in the Northeastern United States, the region I belong to. One of the most striking is the moccasin flower, or pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule). On a recent hike in High Point State Park in northwestern New Jersey, a group of us came across several stands in marvelous full bloom. Moccasin flower is closely related to the Yellow Lady’s Slipper (C. calceolus, C. parviflorum), a species generally found further south but occasionally in our region as well. Eclectic physicians – preeminent American herbalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries who have left us a treasure trove of knowledge about botanical medicine – considered Cypripedium species to be helpful in cases of insomnia, nervous headaches, irritability, and delirium.
Lady’s slippers and moccasin flowers are now threatened, endangered, or rarein their native habitats and have protected legal status in many of the states they are found in. They should never be harvested to be used as medicine or any other purpose. For those with children or a child-like heart, there is a lovely book titled The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper by Lise Lunge-Larsen and Margi Preus which retells the Ojibwe story of a brave girl who heals her village with herbs and gave rise with her sacrifice to the ma-ki-sin waa-big-waan, or moccasin flower.
Increasingly we are recognizing that most if not all plants rely on mutualistic (or symbiotic) relationships to facilitate the absorption and uptake of nutrients in the soil. Primarily these are mutualistic relationships with fungi and are known collectively as mycorrhizal relationships, in which the small thread-like hyphae of the fungi in the soil intertwine with and in some cases even enter into the rootlets of the plants they share the soil with. The fungi provide the plant with soil-based nutrients such as minerals, an in return receive carbohydrates (sugar) from the plant produced through photosynthesis. It turns out that moccasin flowers in particular are some of the plants most dependent on mycorrhizae for their nutrition. Their reliance on the presence of a small number of specific fungal species in order to thrive may explain both their relative rarity as well as the challenges in cultivating them.
We have our own mutualistic relationships in the form of the human microbiome, dependent for our digestive and to some degree immune health on tens of thousands of species and trillions of individual microorganisms that live on our skin and lining the mucosal layers of our mouth, esophagus, and gastrointestinal tract. In essence, we can think of our G.I. tracts as our soil, or in turn we can view the soil as the digestive tract of the plant world.
Going even further, the cell itself is now widely recognized as the outcome of a prehistoric endosymbiosis, with some of the individual organelles found in each of our cells having derived from distinct organisms that began to behave in concert billions of years ago – a theory first posited by Lynn Margulis, who along with James Lovelock developed the Gaia Hypothesis. Endosymbiosis is now so widely accepted that some scientists will even refer to the mitochondria in our cells –the powerhouses of our cells– as bacteria living within us.
On the macro level we have co-evolved with our broader ecosystems and the species that belong to them, including medicinal plants – a fact that shifts our view of herbal medicine from being merely a “natural” and gentler alternative to mainstream medicine, towards being part of a fundamental rediscovery of our place on the planet and what it means to be human.
In upcoming posts I will explore herbs and their healing properties, as well as botanical and ecological discussions of our North American medicinal plants. But I will also return periodically to this topic of symbiosis, from the microscopic levels of the human microbiome and mycorrhizal relationships in the soil, all the way to the Gaia theory proposition that the planet itself behaves as a single organism comprised of symbiotic species as component parts.
As an herbalist, I feel that it is vital to establish that herbal medicine is much more than which remedies to use under what scenarios – herbs are not nutriceuticals– but that at its core herbalism should be a redefining of our relationship with the plants themselves and by extension, the planet.
The emerging science on mutualism between species can serve as a powerful complement to spiritual and philosophical teachings that challenge us to question seeing ourselves first and foremost as individuals. Rather than Ego (“I”) perhaps our default framing of ourselves should be more often in terms of Nos (“we”).
Richard is a clinical herbalist with a practice in Brooklyn and in Sullivan County, NY. Richard's background spans both Chinese and Western herbal traditions, and he is a founding director and teacher at the ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism in New York City.