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Medicines For The Earth: The Eco-Physiology of Plants by David Crow



We are entering a period in history when human health will be seriously challenged. If the destructive trends of rapid global warming, accelerating loss of biodiversity, widespread pollution and degradation of ecosystems, deepening poverty, malnutrition, and political instability are not reversed, all forms of medicine will become increasingly ineffective, unaffordable, and unavailable. For large populations in many parts of the world, this future has already arrived.

The causes of these conditions are numerous, complex, pervasive, and seemingly overwhelming. There is, however, one solution that has the potential to unify humanity in worldwide healing – the plants.

Plants are the foundation of civilization and culture. They created the biosphere of the earth’s surface, and they regulate its functions. Plants are the ultimate source of all health and prosperity; they feed us, give us clothing and shelter, provide fuel, fiber, and countless other necessities. Every breath we breathe is the breath of plants, which supports all life. Plants are the origin of medicine.

When healing an illness, there is often relatively little that doctors and patients can do to directly produce optimum functioning of human physiology. Plants, however, provide the biochemical and nutritional compounds that assist the body’s internal ecology and promote its innate homeostasis and equilibrium. Phytonutrients nourish the organs, support the tissues, and enhance immunity, while the medicinal constituents of botanical species detoxify metabolic waste and xenobiotics (harmful foreign substances). No synthetic pharmaceutical drug can perform these functions.

Similarly, there is relatively little that people can do to reverse global warming, to stabilize disturbed weather patterns, or to detoxify environmental contamination. But plants do all of these things. They cool the planet, help regulate the seasons, recharge groundwater, restore soil fertility and stop erosion, regenerate the ozone layer, bind atmospheric carbon dioxide, and purify the toxins we put everywhere. Plants perform the same crucial functions in the outer environment as they do in the inner environment of the body.

This article, along with “The People’s Pharmacy” and “The Pharmacy of Flowers,” outlines a broad vision of plants as humanity’s primary resource for solving the complex and potentially devastating challenges we face. The article begins with a brief overview of how plants created and sustain the biosphere, followed by an exploration of the parallels between human and plant physiology, and comparisons between disease processes in the human body and planetary ecosystems. Finally, it outlines some of the ways plants are being used for healing the environment, and how these functions are similar to healing mechanisms in the human body.

Plant physiology and planetary evolution

The life-supporting elements that we often take for granted are the result of unimaginably long cycles of evolutionary processes. It can accurately be said that plants created, and continue to create, the world we live in. Recognizing our dependency on the eco-functions performed by plants increases our sensitivity to the conditions of the environment, and encourages us to protect and restore the natural world.

From the perspective of plant eco-physiology, four events are of major significance in the long biological history of the earth. The first is the appearance of single-celled photosynthetic organisms in the primordial ocean about three billion years ago. This pre-plant photosynthesis brought about three planetary changes: the radiant energy of sunlight began to be converted into chemical energy, which became the nutritive foundation for all subsequent life forms; atmospheric oxygen increased, which allowed the evolution of more complex organisms and life forms; and atmospheric oxygen was converted to ozone, which provided protection from solar ultraviolet radiation and allowed migration of life onto land.

The second evolutionary step was the migration of multi-celled organisms, the precursors of modern plants and animals, onto land about 450 million years ago. By 400 million years ago, early vascular plants were radiating across the land.

The third important development was the evolution of plant roots. By 375 million years ago, root structures penetrated almost a meter into the soil. This development brought about major changes in the soil and atmosphere; between 400 and 350 million years ago a 10-fold decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide occurred, as a result of plant respiration and microbial activity in the root systems.

The fourth evolutionary step occurred around 100 million years ago, with the appearance of flowering plants. This relatively sudden development brought about a rapid expansion of biodiversity, culminating in human beings, as new forms of life evolved in symbiotic relationships with the plant realm.

Similarities Between Plant and Human Anatomy and Physiology

Plants and humans share numerous anatomical and physiological characteristics; we are actually more similar than different. Understanding these remarkable parallels gives us a greater appreciation for the kinship that exists between the plant and human realms, which in turn is the basis of reverence for nature and respectful coexistence with biodiversity.

The similarities between plants and humans can be simplified into three categories: basic life needs, anatomical and physiological characteristics, and subtle functions.

Basic life needs

The basic needs of plants and people are the same. Plants and people share the fundamental biological cycle of birth (germination), growing to maturity, reproduction, aging and decline, and death. Plants and people both need nutrients in order to grow and thrive, water to moisten the tissues and facilitate metabolic processes, air for respiration, and environmental and seasonal conditions conducive to life. Plants and people both need defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the elements and from other organisms; both suffer from diseases, viral and bacterial infections, and parasitic infestations.

Anatomical and physiological characteristics

There are numerous parallels between the anatomical structures and physiological functions of plants and people. Plants have outer cells that function similarly to skin. Just as human skin is lubricated and protected from the external elements by oily secretions of the sebaceous glands, the aerial surfaces of plants secrete wax produced from fatty acid precursors for waterproofing and immunity. Human bodies are shaped and supported by bony skeletons, while plants have their own connective tissues and skeletal structures; the growth and development of plant cells and organs rely on a skeleton comprised principally of microtubules and microfilaments. The blood vessels and capillaries of the human body can be compared to the xylem (wood) of plants, which is a complex vascular tissue containing water-conducting cells; the blood and lymph correlate with the various fluids that flow through the channels of the plants. The human alimentary canal is comparable to the roots, which draw nourishment into the outer tissues and cells of the plant. Humans and plants both have reproductive systems; human sperm and ova can be compared to the pollen-producing stamens and ovary-containing pistils.

Like humans, plants have complex immune systems. Plants produce purely mechanical defenses, such as spines and thorns. Chemically, they secrete essential oils and oleoresins, which function as immunological compounds to discourage herbivores, stimulate healing of wounds, and protect from insect and fungal pathogens. Plants react to pathogens and diseases by producing certain antibacterial compounds; phytoalexins are probably the most studied of these defensive compounds. These immune responses can be compared to various responses of the human immune system, such as the activation of lymphocytes.

Plant metabolic functions are governed by hormones, as are human functions. Gibberellins are one group of hormones that control growth and a wide variety of other plant developmental processes.

Plants have detoxification mechanisms that work to break down xenobiotics; many of these mechanisms are similar to how the human body deals with toxic compounds. Both plants and humans require certain nutrients and enzymes to efficiently remove toxins and to protect themselves from stress. For example, glutathione plays an important role in various physiological processes of both plants and humans, functioning primarily as an antioxidant.

Like humans, plants suffer oxidative stress and free radical damage when exposed to xenobiotic compounds, and produce antioxidants in response. Pollutant tolerance in plants is determined by many of the same physiological mechanisms as in humans. In general, there are more similarities between the metabolic pathways of plants and humans than there are differences.

The bodies of plants, like the bodies of humans, support complex microbial ecosystems. From the root tips to the tips of the highest leaves, plants provide a diverse habitat for a wide range of microorganisms. Just as the skin and mucous membranes of the human body are the biogeography for various colonies, each zone of a plant has its own cohort of microorganisms. Both the human and the plant body set the stage for its microbial inhabitants, and in turn, the microbes establish a range of varied relationships with their partners, ranging from relatively inconsequential transient visits, to symbiotic functions, to pathogenic attacks.

Subtle functions

There are other fascinating parallels between plants and humans that are more in the realm of subtle energetic physiology than purely biochemical or anatomical functions. Plants, like humans, have circadian rhythms. There is accumulating evidence that plants have multiple circadian clocks both in different tissues and, quite probably, within individual cells. Plant growth, like the growth of the human body, is guided by gravity. Gravitropism, the ability of plant organs to use gravity, has been recognized for over two centuries. Like the human body, plants develop symmetry of form; like the human body, these processes arise in embryogenesis. Plants communicate, both with other plants and with other forms of life. The primary signaling mechanism for this is semiochemicals. These secreted compounds act as attractants and repellants of beneficial or destructive insects, and allow plants to inform other plants of events such as insect attacks and infestation. Studies have also demonstrated that plant growth is stimulated by certain kinds of music and inhibited by others, indicating some level of sensory awareness and sentience.

Parallels Between Human Illness and Biospheric Disorders

One of the most remarkable aspects of traditional Asian medical systems is the practice of diagnosing and treating illness as disequilibrium of nature’s elements within the microcosm of the human body. Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine describes physiological activity using imagery of external elemental forces as they manifest within the individual organs and tissues, such as heart fire, heat in the liver, wind disturbing the nervous system, spleen dampness, and lung dryness.

The implications of this philosophy are both profound and scientifically accurate. It reveals that we are inseparable from nature; that we are composed of nature’s elements; that these elements are continuously circulating into, through, and out of the body; that the body functions according to the same laws as the planetary biosphere; and that nature’s intelligence strives to restore equilibrium within the body. This knowledge of biological interrelatedness and interdependency, which is the basis of many yogic and contemplative practices, is urgently relevant for our modern world.

Traditional Asian medicine is fundamentally a system of “eco-physiology,” which applies the principles of terrestrial ecology to the functioning of the human body. These universal principles are not only applicable to the human body, however - they can also be used to help diagnose and treat disturbances of the biosphere. Using the holistic humoral and energetic models of traditional Asian medical systems, a number of correlations can be made between disorders within the human body (microcosm) and the biospheric functions of the earth (macrocosm). Exploring these similarities is a kind of “macro-thinking” that helps develop awareness of the unity of body and nature; it is also important for clinical success, since illnesses are inseparable from the outer elements and increasingly related to environmental factors. Without this holistic perspective, it is difficult to identify and remove the root causes of illnesses, and natural medicine loses much of its depth and power. The relevance of this knowledge to plant eco-physiology is that both the internal and external aspects of diseases are corrected by the physiological functions of plants.

The most critical disease process occurring at the planetary level is global warming. From an eco-physiological viewpoint, global warming is a fever of the earth. Global warming in turn creates the conditions for epidemics of infectious febrile diseases. Drought and desertification, two increasingly severe manifestations of global warming, can be compared to dehydration and yin deficiency syndromes, which are also generated by chronic heat conditions. In the same way that botanical medicines provide a wide range of anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and demulcent compounds, plants are the key to reversing global warming and desertification through their oxygen-generating, carbon-dioxide-binding, water-recycling, and environmental-cooling functions.

Water pollution in the outer environment can be closely correlated with various forms of fluid toxicity that affect tissues. Water pollution, water stagnation, and the generation of pathogens are closely linked, as when dams create overgrowth of malarial mosquitoes or microbial pathogens. In the body, fluid stagnation, fluid toxicity, and the overgrowth of pathogens are also closely related, as when chronic phlegmatic congestion breeds opportunistic viral and bacterial infections of the respiratory tract, or lymphatic stagnation leads to inflammatory skin conditions. Botanical medicines effectively treat fluid stagnation and toxicity syndromes; plants are also the primary agents for remediation of water pollution and purification of microbial ecologies.

Contamination of the soil can be compared to contamination of the bodily terrain, especially the digestive tract. Loss of topsoil and depletion of soil fertility leads to malnutrition, which is depletion of the body’s tissues. Depletion, toxicity, and genetic modification of the plant kingdom are a fundamental cause of nutritional disorders; both can be linked through the concept of the “earth” element in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Plants are the primary source of nutrients for the body and its tissues, and they are also the primary agents of soil regeneration and the most important way of preventing erosion of topsoil.

A wide range of further parallels can be made between human and biospheric physiology. Erratic weather patterns generated by global warming can be described as disordered biorhythms. “Dead zones” in the ocean created by agricultural toxins can be compared to necrotic tissues of the body. Fascinating comparisons can be made between various diseases, such as cancer and AIDS, and their corresponding manifestations in the biosphere. More examples will be explored below.

Parallels between antibiotic and pesticide use

Another important series of correlations can be made between the effects of antibiotics and the effects of pesticides. Philosophically, antibiotics and pesticides both reflect the nature-dominating paradigm of modern Western culture. Medically and ecologically, both practices are unsustainable. Economically, their use is driven primarily by corporate profit motive.

The relevance of this information to plant eco-physiology is that plants are the solution to the worldwide problems caused by antibiotics and pesticides in both the micro and macro ecosystems. Medically, the phytonutrients, alkaloid compounds, immune-enhancing polysaccharides, and essential oils of botanical species will become increasingly important as microbial virulence increases and antibiotics lose their effectiveness. Ecologically, the revival of biodynamic and organic gardening methods will replace toxic agricultural chemicals as pesticide and herbicide resistance increases.

Antibiotics and pesticides both target unwanted organisms. Both destroy the complex healthy microbial communities in the various terrains where they are used; antibiotics destroy healthy intestinal, mucous membrane, and skin flora, while pesticides destroy the microbial communities in the soil and natural predators such as beneficial insects and birds. Both approaches lead to increased resistance and virulence in bacteria, insect pests, and invasive weeds. The use of both is followed by a rebound effect: overgrowth of candida and other opportunistic infections after antibiotic use, and flourishing of insect pests after the effects of spraying have worn off. Antibiotics weaken immunity, while pesticides and herbicides decrease soil fertility and plant resistance. Increased pathogenic virulence and resistance combined with weakened host immunity leads to susceptibility to re-infection after antibiotic use, and susceptibility of plants to opportunistic diseases after pesticide use. Antibiotics lead to accumulation of toxicity within tissues and organs after repeated use, while pesticides and herbicides lead to accumulation of chemical toxicity in soil, water, and air.

Parallels between organic gardening and natural medicine

On the other hand, parallels and analogies can be made between the non-toxic methods used in organic gardening and farming, and the principles of natural healing. Both activities are based on the eco-physiology of plants, whether in the garden or in the body.

Building healthy soil by promoting microbial communities through composting has an obvious correlation with improving digestive function by building healthy intestinal bacterial ecology. Insects attack plants with poor immunity, just as bacteria opportunistically attack weaknesses in immune defenses. Increasing biodiversity, such as integrated pest management and companion planting, increases plant resistance; in a similar way, botanical medicine and integrated therapies strive to strengthen the body through the use of a broader spectrum of nutrients and healthy stimuli. Using aromatic plants to repel insects in gardens is similar to the use of essential oils to treat bacterial and viral infections. Increasing the availability of oxygen and nutrients to tissues by increasing circulation is similar to supplying nutrients to plants through proper aeration of soil. Providing good drainage of water in the garden is comparable to improving fluid metabolism and removing congestion.

Phytoremediation: Using plants to heal the environment

Phytoremediation is the removal and degradation of contamination in soils and groundwater by plants. It utilizes a variety of plant physiological functions, including direct uptake of toxins, metabolism of those toxins into less toxic or nontoxic compounds, and degradative processes of bacteria and fungi within plant root systems. These processes, which are capable of removing low to moderate levels of environmental pollution, can be correlated with similar functions in the human body, which also degrade and eliminate xenobiotics and metabolic waste.

There are many advantages of using phytoremediation over conventional remediation methods: it is less expensive, it can be applied to a wide range of toxic metals and radionuclides, it is minimally disruptive to the environment, it is solar powered and energy efficient, it requires little maintenance, and it is aesthetically pleasing. There are thousands of phytoremediation projects in different stages of research and development around the world.

A wide range of environmental toxins can be remediated using plants. Phytoremediation is being used to clean up metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and landfills. Hybrid poplar and Eastern cottonwood remove chlorinated solvents in ground water. Petroleum and its hydrocarbons can be removed from soil and ground water using alfalfa, poplar and juniper, fescue grass, crabgrass, and clover. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons are remediated with ryegrass and mulberry trees. Heavy metals can be removed from soil using poplar and pine trees, chaparral, various grasses, and castor plants. Radionuclides can be removed from ground water with sunflowers and water hyacinth, and from the soil with mustards and cabbage. Explosives such as TNT can be removed from groundwater with duckweed and parrot feather grass. Nitrates can be remediated with cottonwood and poplar trees. Various water plants, including hyacinths, are being used in municipal sewage treatment.

In the last five years it has become clear that while phytoremediation has significant benefits in certain applications, its widespread commercial use is limited by the natural processes of plant physiology: plants degrade toxins slowly, large areas are needed for planting, many plants cannot be grown in the soils and climates where they are needed, and much remains unknown about the field in general. The scientific community involved in this research is now exploring genetic modification of plant physiology as a way of enhancing their remediating powers.

Some improvements in plant remediation capacity using genetic modification have been reported, such as using bacterial genes to help plants degrade mercury more efficiently. By inserting mammalian genes to express cytochrome P450 liver enzymes, plants have been modified to enhance their degradation of trichloroethylene, a ubiquitous toxic solvent used in dry cleaning.

It is ironic that scientific advances intended for human betterment are the original source of the chemical, biological, and nuclear waste that now needs remediating. It seems likely that the well-intentioned efforts to improve plant functions with genetic modification, like much of modern allopathic medicine, may yield symptomatic benefits while worsening the overall health of the biosphere. Holistic medicine, on the other hand, addresses the causative factors of illness and works to eliminate them. The obvious solutions to widespread contamination of the earth is to first stop manufacturing and using toxic substances (detoxifying the patient from addictions), converting to nontoxic plant-based alternatives (creating a healthy lifestyle), and enhancing phytoremediation capacities by restoring ecosystems to their original biodiversity (restoring systemic immunity and homeostasis).

The Eco-Physiology of Phytoremediation

Phytoremediation can be categorized into six basic plant functions: phytodegradation, phytoextraction, rhizofiltration, rhizodegradation, phytostabilization, and phytovolatilization. These functions are clear examples of the eco-physiology of plants and its practical applications for environmental remediation. Several comparisons can be made between these plant processes and human metabolic functions.


Phytodegradation, also known as phytotransformation, is the breakdown of contaminants by metabolic processes within the plant, or the breakdown of contaminants external to the plant through the effect of compounds produced by the plants. Plants degrade contaminants through enzymatic pathways, and the metabolites are incorporated into new plant material. Phytodegradation processes are effective on organic pollutants including petroleum byproducts, pesticides like DDT, and explosives like TNT.

The processes of phytodegradation can be compared to detoxification processes in the human body, especially those occurring in the liver, such as the cytochrome enzymatic pathways.


Phytoextraction is the use of plants to absorb toxic metals from the soil into the harvestable parts of the roots, stems, and leaves. “Hyper-accumulators” absorb unusually large amounts of metals in comparison to other plants. One or a combination of these plants is selected and planted at a particular site based on the type of metals present. After the plants have been allowed to grow for some time, they are harvested and either incinerated or composted to recycle the metals. Approximately 400 species of hyper-accumulators exist, including representatives of many families from herbs to perennial shrubs and trees.

Unlike phytodegradation, the plant does not destroy or use the material, but simply stores it; as it absorbs more from the soil, concentrations of the substance within the plant can become extraordinarily high. For example, the tree Sebertia acuminata absorbs so much nickel that it bleeds a blue-green latex when cut, caused by the oxidized nickel. Metals such as nickel, zinc, and copper are preferred by a majority of the hyper-accumulating plants; others absorb radioactive strontium, cesium, and uranium.

Phytoextraction can be used to pull contamination from water deep in the earth. Because trees are the largest plants in the world, they are able to take up more contaminants than other plants. Poplar trees are being used to extract the widely used solvent trichloroethylene from soil and water. Ninety-five percent of the solvent can be removed from groundwater by simply planting the trees and letting them grow, and about ninety percent of the solvent is degraded into harmless compounds. Through this function of hydraulic pumping, trees also prevent the spread of contaminated water to other areas.

Phytoextraction of toxins by plants is analogous to the accumulation of toxins within the organs and tissues, especially the liver.


Rhizofiltration is similar to phytoextraction, but the plants are used primarily to address contaminated ground water rather than soil. The rhizosphere (the area surrounding roots of plants) contains 10 to 100 times the amounts of bacteria in unplanted soil; organic compounds degrade faster in this microbe-rich area. As the roots become saturated with contaminants, they are harvested. For example, sunflowers were used successfully to remove radioactive contaminants from pond water in a test at Chernobyl.


Rhizodegradation is the breakdown of contaminants in the soil through microbial activity in the root zone (rhizosphere). Certain microorganisms can digest organic substances such as fuels or solvents that are hazardous to humans and break them down into harmless products. Plants release sugars, alcohols, and acids from their roots, which provide nutrition for the microorganisms and enhance their activity. Biodegradation is also aided by plants loosening the soil and transporting water to the area.

The degradative and detoxifying effects of the microbial rhizosphere during rhizofiltration and rhizodegradation are similar to functions performed by beneficial intestinal flora in humans. Using the rhizosphere of plants to enhance bacterial activity in soil is comparable to using probiotic supplementation to remove pathogens such as candida and their toxins.


Phytostabilization is the use of plants to immobilize contaminants through absorption and accumulation by roots, adsorption onto roots, or precipitation within the rhizosphere. This process does not remove the toxins from the soil, but reduces their mobility, prevents their migration into groundwater and air, and decreases their entry into the food chain. Poplar trees, for example, can transpire between 50 and 300 gallons of water per day out of the ground. The water consumption by the plants decreases the tendency of surface contaminants to move towards ground water and into drinking water.

A simple parallel can be drawn between the use of plants to stabilize toxins, and the body’s natural mechanism of encapsulation to prevent the spread of various toxins into the blood and tissues.


Phytovolatilization is the uptake and transpiration of a contaminant by a plant, with release of the contaminant into the atmosphere. Phytovolatilization occurs as trees and other plants take up water and the organic contaminants. Some of these contaminants can pass through the plants to the leaves and evaporate, or volatilize, into the atmosphere.

The leaves of plants are like lungs: both are responsible for respiration and volatilization of waste gases.

Medicinal Plants Used in Eco-Restoration

Several plants with important nutritional and medicinal properties are being utilized in ecological restoration and environmental remediation. These species represent a unique category of phytoremeditation and plant eco-physiology: plants which benefit the environment while simultaneously providing food and medicine. Four examples are kelp, neem trees, vetiver grass, and sea buckthorn.


There are several species of kelp, which are among the fastest growing plants in the world. Kelp produces more oxygen and binds more carbon than any other sea plant; studies suggest that if the original kelp beds of the world’s oceans were replanted (one percent of the ocean’s surface), they could stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the primary greenhouse gas associated with global warming. Kelp forests purify coastal ecosystems and provide habitat for fish populations. Kelp, like other sea vegetables, is a highly nutritious food and medicine, used specifically for supporting thyroid functions.

Neem (Azadirachta Indica)

Neem trees are an excellent example of an agro-forestry crop that remediates environmental pollution while providing a wide range of medicinal and agricultural products. The trees improve soil fertility, rehabilitate degraded wastelands, control soil erosion, and prevent floods; they can withstand extreme heat and high levels of water pollution. Because they provide numerous items of commerce, neem plantations are a panacea for economically depressed areas. The United Nations has declared neem the "tree of the 21st century” because of the many solutions to global problems that it offers.

In India, neem is considered the “village pharmacy.” Every part of the tree provides a variety of medicinal substances for a vast range of symptoms. Neem leaves are a potent hepatoprotective agent; they are effective against parasitic infections, have significant anti-ulcer activity, and are strongly anti-inflammatory. Neem bark is used as a bitter tonic with antibacterial properties; it is effective against a number of skin conditions, including eczema, burns, herpes, scabies, dermatitis, warts, and dandruff. The fatty oil expressed from the seed has a long history of use as a nontoxic spermicidal contraceptive; it also reduces uterine inflammation. A large number of herbal pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and body care products are now based on neem products.

One of the best examples of plant eco-physiology is nontoxic pesticides produced from neem leaves. Neem-based pest control products, like herbal antibiotics, have broad-spectrum modes of action that are not only effective against pests, but also safer, less persistent in the environment, and less prone to pest resistance than synthetic pesticides.

The bioactivity of neem has been extensively evaluated and is well established. It is the only plant from which effective and eco-friendly bio-pesticides are commercially manufactured. Neem pesticides are used in India on crops like cotton, vegetables, fruit trees, coffee, tea, rice and spices. The EPA has approved the use of neem products on food crops in the US, as well as for ornamental and landscape plants. Neem products are being used in commercial-scale crop management in Canada. Neem-based pesticides are expected to capture 10 percent of the global pesticide market by the next decade.

Another application of neem’s eco-physiology is nontoxic fertilizer. Neem leaves, like many herbal medicines with bitter principles, have dual functions: Indian farmers have traditionally used neem as a fertilizer which also acts as a pest repellent. Neem leaves simultaneously enrich the soil and protect plant roots from nematodes, ants, fungi, and harmful bacteria.

Vetiver (Vetiver Zizanioides)

Vetiver is a grass with important phytoremediating functions. Because of its deep and complex root system, it is one of the best grass species for preventing soil erosion. In China, vetiver is being planted on a large scale for pollution control and phytostabilization of mine tailings. Vetiver roots also function as a highly efficient filter for rainwater, slowing down runoff, controlling floods, and recharging ground water. In places where vetiver is planted the soil moisture and groundwater are significantly improved: water levels in wells are higher, springs do not dry up, and small streams run longer into the dry season.

Vetiver roots absorb and transform agricultural toxins. The grass thrives in polluted water and improves both the quantity and quality of the water. It is effective in removing agricultural phosphates and nitrogen, and it mitigates environmental problems resulting from toxic minerals. There is evidence that vetiver can remove pesticides as well.

Vetiver improves soil fertility and crop production. When used as an amendment, it improves soil nutrients and increases crop yields. Vetiver protects orchards by reducing the temperature in and above the soil and increasing air moisture.

Vetiver is easy to establish, is inexpensive, and needs minimum maintenance. It thrives in a wide range of ecosystems and different soil types, can withstand serious drought and long-term water logging, is more tolerant of hot and cold than the other grasses, and is not seriously affected by pests or diseases. It promotes the growth of other plants and helps restore vegetation.

Vetiver is now being grown for environmental purposes in over 100 countries. It provides a number of important items to households and farms, such as fragrant sleeping mats, thatching for roofs, mulch, and animal feed. Vetiver is the source of an aromatic oil used in perfumery, incense, and medicine.

Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Sea buckthorn is a shrub that has been used for numerous purposes for at least 1,200 years. It is mentioned in Tibetan medical classics from the sixth century. Until the 1980s its use was limited to Tibet and Mongolia; now it is cultivated for a variety of purposes in China and other places.

The eco-physiology of sea buckthorn has valuable environmental applications, while simultaneously providing numerous medicines, foods, and cosmetics. The primary ecological benefits of the shrub, like vetiver grass, are based on its complex and deep root system, which provides excellent soil-binding properties, erosion control, and stabilization of mountainsides.


The overall health of society is determined more by its nutritional, hygienic, and environmental status than by the sophistication of its medical systems. If medicine does not address these underlying levels of wellbeing and illness, it is not holistic. Physicians and healthcare practitioners of all disciplines have a responsibility to support planetary ecological health by identifying the causes of diseases and educating patients about how to remove those causes. As this holistic consciousness increases throughout society, the recognition of plants as agents of both medical and ecological healing will also increase; this awareness, in turn, has the potential to dramatically change the destructive priorities of modern society and lead to the creation of sustainable, prosperous, and peaceful plant-based cultures. In my opinion, this is the most important goal of medical practice today.



Published with the kind permission of David Crow


David Crow, L.Ac. is an acupuncturist and herbalist with over twenty years experience, a health educator, and a meditation teacher. He is the author of “In Search of the Medicine Buddha,” a book about his studies of Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine in the Himalayas. He is the founder of Floracopeia Aromatic Treasures, which supports ecologically sustainable agriculture through the production of essential oils and aromatic products. David has presented his vision of grassroots healthcare, preservation of botanical medicines, and the use of plants for ecological restoration to hundreds of audiences, ranging from small private groups to conferences and lecture halls, to a panel discussion with the Dalai Lama broadcast internationally to millions of viewers. He can be contacted at


Copyright © 2006 David Crow. All rights reserved.


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This article was published on Saturday 23 May, 2009.
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