Using what's available: Vermont herbalists turn an invasive plant into medicine
On a recent cool, windy fall morning, I head to Rock Point on the lake front of Lake Champlain near Burlington.
There, I meet Tyler Pastorok, Rock Point's land stewardship coordinator. And we're here to check out the knotweed on this property.
"We cut out all of the new growth that there was and piled it and kind of cleaned everything up, so that it was a clear, accessible site where you just have like root ball, root ball, root ball sticking up out of the ground," he said.
You'll find Japanese knotweed along the banks of every major river in Vermont. This invasive species thrives in wet habitats, and has smooth, hollow-jointed stems that kind of look like bamboo. But it can cause problems. It's really good at growing. So good, it often replaces native plants. It can also cause rivers and streambanks to erode — and even cause structural damage to buildings.
Yet this prolific plant has its good side. And some Vermonters, like Tyler, are trying to share that with the Green Mountain State.
He said it's not difficult to uproot knotweed. But the process does need to be done carefully in order to preserve some of the root balls for processing medicine.
In its home country, Japanese knotweed is revered in part for its medicinal properties and even as a food source. That's why there's growing interest in harvesting and using the plant in Vermont.
But land managers still need to keep it under control.
"We did come back a couple of weeks ago and cut any of the new growth," Tyler said.
Home gardeners are known to go after knotweed on their own property with a sort of "slay the dragon" mindset because it can shade out native vegetation and even degrade fish and wildlife habitat.
Tyler said he didn't have high hopes to manage such a vigorous knotweed patch alone. Usually, it's difficult to find volunteers who want to spend their Saturdays bent over a shovel digging up knotweed roots. But Tyler said this project offers something more than that.
"With this partnership it very much became multipurpose. People felt a sense of helping to protect the native biodiversity here and getting to provide medicine for the community," he said.
That's why Kara Buchanan and Katherine Elmer are joining us at Rock Point, too. They are co-founders of a natural medicine nonprofit called Spoonful Herbals. For the last few years, they've been organizing something they call "herb mobs." It's a plant-gleaning program throughout the growing season on different farms around the region.
They organize groups to help harvest wild plants that are plentiful, or even surplus herb crops or unwanted weeds, like this knotweed here at Rock Point. Then they dry and process the plants and share them.
Kara stewards the medicinal garden here at Rock Point. This space grows many of the cultivated plants used at Spoonful Herbals. And Katherine is a part-time lecturer of herbal medicine at the University of Vermont and Northern Vermont University.
"As herbalists, we often look to what is abundant in the environment as a sign for what medicine is needed. So the weeds are there because they're offering their medicine," Katherine said.
The National Institutes of Health — the nation's medical research agency — recognizes Japanese knotweed's centuries-long use in Japan and China as a traditional herbal remedy. The plant contains resveratrol, the same substance also found in grapes, berries, peanuts and red wine. Resveratrol is seen as a beneficial anti-inflammatory with antioxidant properties. And it's good for cardiovascular health.
To get at that resveratrol, Katherine and Kara had to take the fresh root balls and send them through a wood chipper.
"If we had dried them before we did that, they'd basically turn to concrete," Kara said.
Volunteers helped clean and shape the root balls beforehand.
"It really was a task that lent itself to working in community. Then Kara and I could focus more on the processing and the selecting the roots that were best to use for medicine," Katherine said.
Like medicine made from soaking the knotweed chips to form a tincture that can be consumed. People can soak the knotweed chips in alcohol in a jar. Or if people choose not to consume alcohol, Kara says vinegar works, too.
"It's a less potent product. And like all root medicines, it can be decocted, which is a way of simmering the root for a long time in water to extract a lot of its nutrients," she said.
And after soaking the knotweed chips, you can actually see the resveratrol. Kara says it has a "beautiful russet brown color."
She said on the day they came to Rock Point, they harvested 30 to 40 pounds of knotweed chips, and they're now laying on trays in a large dehydrator closet at Spoonful Herbals to dry.
"We'll be distributing to lots of partnership organizations," she said.
Katherine says a lot of the work they do at Spoonful Herbals, as a local education nonprofit, is to re-educate people who've lost their connection to local medicine.
"And helping them find ways to use what is available in the green spaces around where they live," she said.
More from Vermont Public: With roots that can run 10 feet deep and a zombie-like afterlife, knotweed is a difficult invasive to control
Along with the health benefits, knotweed is also a late-bloomer, meaning it flowers towards the end of summer. It provides a great food source for native pollinators. That's why Kara keeps honey bee hives at Rock Point.
"So many pollinators nest in the hollow stems. Even just leaving piles like this is beneficial to a lot of critters and insects. Somebody might be building a nest in there," she said.
And that "herb mob" plant-gleaning program that Spoonful Herbals has had in various smaller iterations over the last eight years? Well, this fall it finally came to full fruition, through this partnership with Rock Point, the herbalists, dozens of volunteers, a robust network of partners to distribute medicine to afterwards — and of course, the knotweed.
"What we're expecting next year is that there will still be plenty of new growth, because there's still lots of rhizomes in the ground. And it can sprout from even really small pieces of the plant, which will be a new challenge," Tyler said.
With this ready supply of knotweed to carefully harvest and manage, the folks here are rooted in the practice to make sure the nuisance aspects of this plant don't overshadow its medicinal benefits.
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