A doctor seeks a new form of healing: a folk medicine accessible to everyone.


David Crow  

The last century brought immense improvements in health and longevity to people in the USA. Some of these benefits can be attributed to medical advances, but most were the result of improvements in sanitation, nutrition, and overall quality of life. Now many of these improvements are being lost, and many new threats to health are emerging. Instead of open sewers, we have ubiquitous environmental contamination, and instead of malnutrition from lack of food, we have widespread nutrition-related illnesses caused by degradation of the food chain. While modern medicine has made great advances, iatrogenic (medical related) illnesses are among the leading causes of death, and preventable and treatable chronic degenerative diseases have reached epidemic levels.

The Root Causes of Illness
Most health problems in modern America can be attributed to five root causes:

• Nutrition
• Environmental pollution
• Socio-economic stresses
• Spiritual emptiness
• Medical (iatrogenic)

Holistic medical systems, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Naturopathic medicine, offer significant benefits in treating symptoms arising from these root causes, especially those related to nutrition, environmental toxins, and iatrogenic illness. However, there are limitations of what natural medicine can do when these root causes are not resolved.

Over the years, my clinical work has become more personalized, as I strive to uncover, understand, and remove the root causes of illness, while also treating its symptoms. Thus, I have become aware of the urgent need for a new form of medicine, which raises the overall level of environmental, social, nutritional, and spiritual well-being. It would not be ‘alternative,’ ‘complementary,’ or ‘integrated’ medicine, although it could be used in many cases as an alternative or complementary therapy, or integrated with other healthcare systems. Rather, it would be a parallel system of medicine: grassroots, community-supported, cost-effective, plant-based healthcare, accessible to everyone. In other words, folk medicine: using medicinal and nutritive plants grown in our neighborhoods, according to common knowledge passed down within families and communities.

Community-Supported, Plant- Based Healthcare

The revival of folk medicine and the creation of community-supported plant-based healthcare depends on many types of social, botanical, educational, and environmental projects working together, including:

1. Community and urban gardens
2. School gardens
3. Eco-villages
4. Eco-preserves
5. Agro-forests
6. Nurseries and small herb farms
7. Botanical gardens
8. Seed banks
9. Practitioners and educators of herbal medicine

Community and urban gardens

Community and urban gardens have a long history, and are now re-emerging as viable alternatives to both modern agribusiness and destructive traditional farming methods such as slash and burn. Community gardens come in all shapes and sizes: from tiny, inner city plots tended by homeless people, to entire neighborhoods planted with foods and medicines. They can be as simple as potted plants on balconies and rooftops, and as innovative as edible parks. In developing countries, urban and community gardens are a primary source of nutrition and income for countless families.

Without a strong nutritional foundation from affordable, locally grown organic foods, it is difficult to improve the standards of health in society.
When neighborhoods are transformed into gardens, numerous social problems are resolved: crime decreases, community and family bonds are strengthened. Gardens are a place of beauty and spiritual solace, which bring happiness to those suffering from stress and emotional difficulties. Prison gardens, for example, are recognized as one of the best paths to genuine criminal rehabilitation. By transforming our cities into living pharmacies and sources of nourishment, the five root causes of sickness can all be alleviated.

School gardens

In these ‘outdoor classrooms’ students find more enjoyment in learning; thus attention difficulties and behavior problems are reduced. Emotional growth and social skills are enhanced by observing the processes of nature at work, and by being given responsibility for caretaking plants and animals. The high quality nutrition provided by the gardens, along with the physical activity of gardening, improves the overall health of students and teachers alike.

Eco-preserves, agro-forests, botanical gardens, & seed banks
Some 34,000 species of plants currently face extinction, including many important sources of food, medicine, fiber, oil, and fuel. There are only two solutions to this problem: the preservation of existing habitats, and widespread cultivation of endangered plants. At this time, the majority of medicinal plants are over-harvested.

Eco-preserves, agro-forests, botanical gardens, and seed banks play a critical role in caretaking the genetic base of the plant realm for future generations. As community gardens flourish and folk medicine takes root in more neighborhoods, more plants can be brought into greater cultivation. Paul Strauss and the volunteers at the United Plant Savers Sanctuary have renovated a degraded forest area into a world-class botanical preserve for the major endangered medicinal plants of the US.


Eco-villages are based on new models of self-sufficiency and independence from the economic and ecological disasters of corporate globalization; grassroots medicine is an important part of this self-sufficiency. Larger eco-villages produce their own food and medicines; some produce medicinal products for income, and some have small clinics run by trained herbalists. Many offer educational programs in a wide variety of ecological, spiritual, and healthcare topics.

Practitioners and educators of herbal medicine

The last decade has seen an astronomical increase in the use of herbs by the general public, stimulated by the spread of alternative and complementary therapies, and the urgent need for non-toxic medicine. To make these medicines widely available and cost-effective, the knowledge of how to grow and use the plants must once again become part of family traditions.

There are several ways that herbalists and other health workers can help revive community-supported folk medicine. Most important is to create and maintain community and urban gardens. When community gardens have the active support of knowledgeable herbalists, information about the propagation, cultivation, harvesting, and use of medicinal plants becomes an ongoing part of collective learning. Another way is to encourage patients to grow their own medicines. This can lead to a network of neighborhood gardens.

The Need For Grassroots Healthcare

The need for community-supported plant-based healthcare is most urgent. Some reasons for this include:

1. Need for affordable non-toxic medicines

Even socialized medicine would probably cover only the basics of allopathic medicine. However, there is an epidemic caused by the adverse effects of drugs on immunity, nutritional status, vitality, homeostasis, and detoxification processes. Only botanical plants can effectively perform these crucial functions. Unfortunately, high quality herbal preparations are becoming increasingly expensive, and many people cannot afford the out-of-pocket expenses necessary to treat chronic conditions.

2. Loss of medicinal plants

Uncontrolled over-harvesting has brought numerous medicinal species to the brink of extinction. As global demand increases, over-harvesting accelerates. This depletes natural populations, which increases the value of the plant, which in turn stimulates more over-harvesting. The only way that many medicinal and nutritional plant species will be saved is through widespread cultivation, both as commercial products and in community gardens as folk medicines.

3. Loss of ethno-botanical knowledge

Medicinal plants, the habitats they come from, and understanding their uses are inseparable. As medicinal plants are lost and their habitats vanish, the knowledge of ethno-botanical traditions also perishes. By bringing plants into widespread local cultivation, the knowledge of their cultivation, harvesting, preparation, and use can be preserved.
4. Need for high-quality locally grown foods and medicine
In the near future, instability of oil supplies, worsening economic conditions, and the hidden costs of destructive agribusiness practices may drive the cost of food production higher, leading to increased malnutrition and lower immunity in people. Food and medical security, created by cultivating foods and medicines in local communities, will reduce dependency on agribusiness and fossil fuels, and increase the general level of nutrition and resistance to illness.

5. Loss of communities & degradation of urban environments

For many people, urban environments and the socio-economic stresses of modern culture are the primary sources of sickness and suffering.

 Shortsighted city planning has placed cars, business interests, and racial segregation above the interests of people, nature, and health.
Cities do not have to be unpleasant, unhealthy, and stressful places to live and work, however. They can be places where business thrives in car-free environments, smog and pollution are dramatically reduced, right livelihood abounds, and the general level of nutritional well-being improves through community gardening.

Plant-based healthcare can be linked to the re-greening of urban environments, resulting in many fundamental improvements in public and environmental health. The work of tending community gardens helps restore community and family bonds. Ecological cities create numerous jobs in non-toxic industries, which provide alternatives to the stressful disease-causing careers of the modern corporate world. By replanting cities, both with community gardens and urban forests, they become cleaner, quieter, and more beautiful.

Creating Grassroots Healthcare

Building a grassroots movement to grow and utilize medicinal and nutritive plants requires commitment and resources from individuals and communities. For this movement to succeed, it must be embraced by city planners, have the cooperation of numerous professions and organizations, and receive government funding. The more economies suffer, the more people work together at the grassroots level to provide their needs. Cuba, in response to economic and political isolation, has become a leading model of self-sufficient urban gardening and government-sponsored, community-supported folk medicine.
Examples of people and projects creating grassroots healthcare
One of my favorite research projects is collecting stories and photos of projects around the world that promote herbal conservation, ecological restoration, and grassroots healthcare. These projects are the seeds of a sustainable future for natural medicine and grassroots healthcare in general.

Here are short descriptions of some of the people and organizations that exemplify various aspects of grassroots healthcare. Through my involvement in the first two projects, below, I have come to understand that community-supported plant-based healthcare reaches far beyond the mere treatment of symptoms, and addresses the deeper roots of illness at all levels: socially, economically, ecologically, and spiritually.

The Learning Garden
Venice High School, Los Angeles

The Learning Garden is a collaboration between Venice High School, Yo San University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the local community. It brings high quality nutrition and medicinal plants into the public schools, and educates the students and community about the benefits of plant-based healing systems.

In the last two years, the 60,000 square foot agricultural plot on the campus has been transformed from an abandoned eyesore into the beginnings of an extensive organic garden. A pond has been renovated and filled with water-loving medicinal plants, and a garden of Chinese medicinals has been planted. The garden has received funding to plant an extensive collection of fruit, nut, and medicinal trees, as well as a large Ayurvedic herb garden.

We anticipate that food and herbs from the garden will soon make a significant contribution to the overall health of the high school students. To assist in that goal, Yo San has made their clinics available to Venice High students and faculty at greatly reduced rates. This integration of garden and clinic into the public school system is a powerful model that should be duplicated elsewhere.

The Self and Soul Center: A Medicinal Forest and Biological Ark

This privately owned spiritual center and psychotherapy clinic is run by Rod Birney, MD, and Suzanna Nadler. Located near Ashland, Oregon, the twenty-five acre property is an ideal home for a large number of medicinal plant species. Over the last two years, we have worked with a number of people from the local communities to plant and maintain a diverse collection of herbs and wild foods from around the world.
The Self and Soul medicinal forest is an excellent example of the integration of clinical practice, community education, and locally grown botanical medicines. The Center sponsors classes in herbal medicine, meditation, and spiritual practices. Recently, we linked the Center to both the Botany and Native American Studies departments of Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Students from the university are now undertaking ethno-botanical and ecological study projects on the land.
Here, I can offer my patients freshly harvested plants and teach them about specific herbs. As the diversity and abundance of herbs increase over the years, a wider spectrum of fresh plant medicines will be available.

Future Vision Ecological Park
Sao Paulo, Brazil

The Future Vision Ecological Park was founded by Dr. Susan Andrews (Didi Anandamitra), in Parangaba, Sao Paulo State, Brazil. This eco-village is based on the principles of bio-economics—creating abundance through organic cultivation and complete recycling of natural resources—and guided by the philosophy that ecological sustainability is intimately linked to spirituality.

Since 1992, members of the village have replanted thousands of trees on the 120-acre property, in what was once a barren district, deforested for cattle ranching. Today, the wildlife has returned, and the entire ecosystem is returning to its original state. Rainwater is caught in small man-made lakes, and filtered through an elaborate system of rocks, sand, and plants. The wastewater from the kitchen, bathrooms and laundry is filtered through a similar biological wetland system. The organic gardens are abundant with fruits and vegetables, and nutritious vegetarian meals are served every day. The village is powered by solar and wind energy.

Medicinal plants are grown in a number of gardens, processed in the village laboratory, utilized in the Ayurvedic clinic, and sold to the public. The Living Pharmacy Program teaches children and youth from surrounding schools about growing, harvesting, and preparing herbs for cooking and the treatment of common ailments at home.

Dr. Andrews and her crew work closely with Jamie Lerner, three-term mayor of Curitiba, which is considered one of the most innovative and environmentally friendly cities on the planet. Nearly 1000 adults have attended courses at the village in human development, preventive health care, education, culture, self-reliant industries, and Ayurvedic medicine, and are spreading these ideas through activities in 18 cities throughout Brazil.

David Crow, L.Ac., is an acupuncturist, Ayurvedic herbalist, meditation teacher, and health educator. He is the author of In Search of the Medicine Buddha, a book about his studies with Ayurvedic and Tibetan physicians in the Himalayas. For more information about David Crow and his work, visit