Jewelweed, which often grows near poison ivy, is able to extract the oils from poison ivy and help you heal. Elderberry supports the immune system. Goldenrod can reduce allergies and is good for the circulatory system.
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Jewelweed, which often grows near poison ivy is able to extract from your body. The oils from poison ivy can help you heal. Who figured this out and how? What other plants right around us can help promote healing? This is episode 334 and our guest is Mark Merriwether Vorderbruggen. He has an MS in Medicinal Chemistry and a PhD in Physical Organic Chemistry. He is a forager and an expert on wild, edible and medicinal plants.
Welcome to the show, Mark.
Thank you for having me.
Tell us one of your early forays into plant healing.
I have two daughters and both of them were in ballet. If you’ve ever seen the feet of a ballerina, they are pretty chopped up from the dancing. My infinite dad and herbalist wisdom, I thought, “I can help here.” I made up a medicated lotion using dandelion root, comfrey and some other skin healing things like plantain. I was applying it to their feet and it turned out that was the wrong thing to do because they need that damage to build up the calluses. My wife corrected me.
What made you know that you could look to some of these natural plant remedies to help what was gone wrong in the body?
I grew up learning these things. My mom and dad are big into the outdoors and all the plants. We grew up in a small town and we were going for a walk in the woods around the town and mom would point out, “Grandma would use this plant for that and that plant for this.” It was just something I grew up doing.
Why do you think we’re so far removed from the idea that plants can be used for medicine?
I blame television. It is this thing that everyone just sits down and watches. They’re no longer interacting with the environment. They’re passively being entertained rather than struggling for survival. The fact that you have time to be passively entertained is nice. That wasn’t always the way. Both my parents were children of the great depression and one of the ways they got through that terrible time was through knowledge of the edible and medicinal plants around them.
Before television, how did we, as a culture, lose the knowledge to know which plants can heal?
I’ll give a little background of me first. I have a Master’s in Medicinal Chemistry and a PhD in Physical Organic Chemistry. I’m a chemist and I blame chemists. Back in 1861, they came up with a compound called chloral hydrate, which turned out to be a very potent sedative and was one of the early anesthetics. At that time, there was this belief that science can conquer nature. They said, “If we can make this molecule, we can make all other beneficial molecules in a way they went,” whether they were successful or not. In some cases, they were amazingly successful but in other places, not so much.
Can you mention some of the ones in which they were successful and the ones in which they weren’t as much?
Traditional medicine, plant-based medicine, a lot of those deal with lifestyle issues. The effects of aging or occasional infections, thing like that and not deeper-seated type issues, in one case cancers.” There are some anti-cancer medications taken from plants but when it comes to fighting cancer like chemotherapy, they’re harsh. They’re poisons designed to try and kill the cancer cells before they kill the healthy cells but there’s been some success. Probably the greatest success would be insulin to help diabetics.
What if the cause of our disease is that we are disconnected from our environment?
Stretch your diet into other ethnicities because that may help your body more than you think it will.
A lot of it comes from that. There’s a genetic component. Some people are destined to have certain effects like multiple sclerosis or something like that where it’s truly a genetic disease. Like the case of cancer, you may be susceptible to it but some sort of industrial, environmental toxin or lack of certain things in the diets triggered it.
Our show focuses a lot on the wisdom of our ancestors. It seems to me, they were absolutely connected to their environment, to the degree that they knew which plants had healing properties and which did not. Where do you think they got that knowledge from?
If you track it back far enough and talk to different indigenous people that are still around that have the old ways, it comes back to, “The plants told us.” Different cultures and different places around the world say, “The plants told us.” Somehow there was some connection. As a PhD Chemist, that thought is frightening to me because it implies a whole extra side of things that I can’t see and measure but has a great deal of impact on us. That takes some mental gymnastics to grasp.
On your journey, you’ve learned to cultivate that intuitive side of understanding nature more than just the scientific side.
I approach it from the science side, looking at the molecules inside the plants themselves. I tell people, “Remember, plants can’t run so they have to fight.” The way they fight is through the production of very rich chemistry to protect them against infections, bacteria, herbivores and things like that. Plants are amazing.
Tell me if this is true. One thing I’ve heard is that sometimes the remedy for something is right next to the cause of it. For example, I had a horrible case of poison ivy. Some people said that a certain plant grows right near the ivy that can help heal you from that. Have you noticed that as you’ve studied nature?
In that case, you’re talking about jewelweed. Jewelweed is shown to be able to extract the oils from the poison ivy to your skin, keeping the oils from burrowing into your skin to prevent an allergic reaction. Everything else is not so much. On the other hand, there’s a rich diversity of plants and plant chemistry around, it may be possible. It may be the case, we just haven’t identified the particular things.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t more of it in nature that we just hadn’t found yet.
There are so many plants and chemicals that haven’t been tested. There’s almost an infinite number of molecules produced by the plants and testing each one as well as combinations of each one against all the different diseases and possibilities. It’s a huge matrix of testing that will take a long time to do.
What’s one of your favorite plants that you’ve done some of the testings on that every time you look at it you’re like, “What? I’m fascinated.”
Prunella Vulgaris, self-heal, also known as heal-all. There’s scientific proof on it being anti-cancer, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and speeding up the healing of wounds. It truly heals all. This plant was found all around the world and everywhere it grows, it became one of the primary medicinal plants of the cultures in that area.
Why have I never heard of it before? Why isn’t this well-known by everybody?
There’s a saying in Latin that says, “Who benefits?” If you want to know why something is or is not, you got to ask yourself, “Who benefits from this knowledge?” Either bringing the knowledge out or keeping it in?
You seem to be passionate about not only acquiring this knowledge but imparting it to others. Is that right?
Yes, most definitely. I tell people I’m the luckiest person you will ever meet because I know exactly why I was put on the Earth. Many people spend their whole life looking for a purpose. My purpose is to reconnect people to the miracles around them, these powers, nutritional values and medicines that are all around them that they walk past every day and don’t know about.
Do you think I’ve walked past that heal-all plant?
Possibly. Are you based out in California?
No. I’m in DC.
Maybe it grows there but it prefers more of a woodland border area. I would like to say a word about the website, www.ForagingTexas.com. The website that I started back in 2008 became one of the top foraging websites in the nation. There are over 200 plants each with a Texas map and a North American map of where they’re found. Plants don’t follow political borders. They go wherever they feel they can grow. Most of these plants are found all across North America. It’s more about the particular ecosystem than the state.
What’s the name again?
Self-heal, also known as heal-all, Prunella Vulgaris.
Tell us about a couple of others that have captured your attention.
Elderberry is fascinating especially in this situation. It supports both the innate and the active forms of the immune system. It also gets involved in blocking the viruses from entering and hijacking the cellular machinery. It’s amazingly potent. If you have an auto-immune disease, it can make that worse because one of the things that it does is to increase the veracity of the killer T white blood cells, how many are released and how active they are.
I’ve heard a lot of people making an elderberry syrup that they’ll take at the first hint of a cold or sickness especially during the colder months.
It also works prophylactically as a preventative.
There are so many medicinal plants, you can’t take all of them at once. Do you?
I take a lot of them actually, through the Medicine Man Plant Co. I take quite a few from there and the different capsulated forms and also in the forms of tea. I have a big blend of stuff I throw in addition to the coffee grounds in my morning coffee.
Elderberry and Prunella Vulgaris, tell us about another one.
Let’s go back to cancer. One of the ways medicinal chemists figure out a particular compound may have a benefit in fighting something, is they look at a culture. They study the culture, foods, illnesses that they have and also the illnesses they don’t have. One of these things leads to the discovery that the prickly pear cactus has amazing cancer preventative powers.
While some researchers were studying people in the Southwest, they started noticing that the incidence of cancer amongst them was extremely low compared to the rest of the United States. It took a number of years to do this but they found it to be something in the prickly pear cactus that they were eating. They still got a lot of research to try and figure out which compounds are in it but having prickly pear cactus in your diet seems to work as a cancer preventative in all sorts of different types of cancers.
Nature is lazy. If it finds some things that work, it’s going to use it in all sorts of different areas.
My family’s heritage is from Mexico and Cuba and they eat Nopal or the fruit of the cactus in Mexico.
In this case, it’s both the pads and the fruits. The fruits are very high in antioxidants, which have their own free radical scavenging powers but they’re only available during a certain part of the year where the pads are available pretty much all year round. You have to cook and treat them differently. It’s really in the pads themselves that they found the cancer-fighting properties.
As you impart this knowledge, we’ve got readers who are like, “Tell me more.” It’s where I am right now. I’m like, “I didn’t know plants could do all these,” but I also do know this. I don’t live near where the prickly pear grows. Should I still be trying to get that in my body? Weren’t the healthiest people in their day just eating the regional foods?
As part of the whole wild foods saying, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at historical diets and nutrition in general. One thing that seems to pop up is the Greek diet. Everyone heard how healthy the Greek diet was. It was great if you were Greek. It’s the same with the Japanese diet. That was great if you were Japanese. There is an evolutionary aspect to it. At the same time, there’s been so much blending of the races, with globalization.
If you go down into Brazil, there is what they call the Pardo, people which are a mix of Indian, Spanish, black, white, Asian and all these things. They’re believed to be what the human race will eventually become this big blending but because we’ve blended our genetics, the regional diets have been weakened. It’s worthwhile stretching your diet into other ethnicities to include things that may help your body more than you think it will.
It’s the opposite of what I’ve heard from Dr. Jack Kruse and others who say that the food we eat, plants and everything is light information. He calls it an evolutionary match, not an evolutionary mismatch. He emphasizes eating what is local to your area and seasonally.
That depends. Are you local to your area?
Are there any plants that you think, “These are medicinal healing plants 101 that everybody should be familiar with.” Do you have some of those in your arsenal that you recommend for people?
Goldenrod is a very common flower that appears all over North America. Its leaves and flowers are very medicinal. What’s great about it is you can harvest the leaves during the summer. You just snip off the top of the plant and it will put up more shoots. The leaves and flowers are strong antibiotics. They make a good-tasting tea but they also help with a lot of allergy symptoms, which more and more people seem to have. They also are good circulatory rebuilders. As you age your circulatory system and basically all the tissues that hold fluid, the circulatory system, the lymph system, the urinary tract, other parts of the body can become leaky. There are compounds in the Goldenrod that helps knit it together. A great example of leaky tissue would be varicose veins.
Is that what that comes from?
Yeah. The pressure needed to force the blood through your circulatory system exceeds the holding ability of the vessels in certain areas. It’s because they’ve weakened and become leaky so more blood leaks out than it’s supposed to and collects all around the veins.
Do you have another example of something leaky in the body as one ages?
Erectile dysfunction, hence the name goldenrod.
I was at the beach and I think I spotted some goldenrod. Does it grow near the ocean?
There are a lot of different varieties and it grows all over. The key thing in the fall is that pyramid of small, gold, yellow flowers at the top and usually grows in clusters because it does grow from runners and seeds. You’ll have a mess of them connected all together.
What else should we include as a part of our basic plant knowledge that would be helpful in healing?
Mushrooms, the medicinal mushrooms, which often overlap with edible mushrooms like shiitake and lion’s mane mushrooms. All these are usually available at farmer’s markets. The lion’s mane is amazing. The mushroom itself tastes like a lobster when you sauté it up in some butter. On the medicinal side, science has shown that it helps increase the number of neural connections in your brain. It stimulates the growth of the neurons.
What’s another one, Mark?
Milk thistle is a common weed found all around North America. It’s an interesting plant because it’s a big thistle. It looks mean but the leaves have this cool milk-like pattern in the veins. The seeds contain a compound called silymarin. If you eat a poisonous mushroom, it attacks your liver and starts destroying liver cells. Your goal is to try and protect your liver until we can flush this out or replace your liver. It depends on how far the damage goes. The one pharmaceutical medicine they have is this extract from the milk thistle because it has been shown to protect and rebuild liver cells. In the case of mushroom poisoning, what they give you is the milk thistle seed extract.
How frequently do people get poisoned by mushrooms?
Diversity is a strength. If you can get a diversity of connections inside your brain, there’s a lot of strength in that.
It seems to go in waves. The most likely person to suffer a mushroom poisoning was an immigrant from elsewhere coming to the United States or North America seeing a mushroom thinking, “This is the mushroom I ate back in my old land,” and gets surprised that it’s not. As the internet gives people fake mastery of a subject, it has become another issue again.
The more we understand nature, the more we can understand ourselves and the world around us. Do you agree with that?
Here are a couple of concepts to think about. Nature is very lazy. If it finds something that works, it’s going to replace it or use it in all sorts of different areas. The plants, when they’re making these molecules, they’re looking for the easiest, most efficient molecules to make that also do the job they want to do. They don’t want to spend a lot of energy because they only have limited resources.
Maybe we can think of nature as efficient but I’m like, “That’s so smart to me.”
Don’t waste energy you don’t have to but at the same time, they accomplish amazing things. We’ve all probably seen a sidewalk that was cracked by a tree root because they’re slow, steady and doing their thing. They may be lazy but they’re not weak.
What do you think about hallucinogenic mushrooms or using plants for altered states of consciousness?
This goes back to thousands and thousands of years. If you look at some of the Egyptian artwork, there are hallucinogenic mushrooms shown in the artwork. If you look all around the world, the Mayans are there. The interesting thing about hallucinogenic mushrooms is not so much that they alter your reality but they do alter the reality. They completely rewire the brain in connecting parts of the brain that don’t normally speak to one another.
Through this, they’ve shown it has all sorts of beneficial effects on people especially with depression and other issues where the brain doesn’t work in a traditional manner. I don’t want to say in a wrong manner because it’s doing what it’s doing but by rewiring it and allowing parts to talk to one another that hasn’t been talking, there are a lot of benefits. We say diversity is strength. If you can get a diversity of connections inside your brain, there’s a lot of strength in that.
The concern is that one will become addicted when one tries these things because addiction to medications and such is so prevalent in our society.
Let me preface this by saying I’ve never tried them but from chemistry and an herbalist’s point of view, I’m very curious. I’ve been reading a lot about it. One of the things that come up is that they aren’t all that addictive. In fact, it’s the opposite. Let’s say you take 1 gram dose of mushroom to reach a particular altered state. If you try and do it again, you’re going to need 2 grams because your body does build up a tolerance to it.
There are people who are more susceptible to wanting to escape reality or become addicted to things. They show that there’s a genetic component overall to addiction. In that case, yes but under controlled herbalist training, it seems there are benefits. There’s a lot of research that started to support this. A lot of states are looking at allowing them to be used like the whole medicinal marijuana.
There’s a huge push in the alternative health space to go meat-heavy or meat-based. They say the animal products offer so much to us and plants, not so much. What do you have to say to that?
I’ve been following this argument for a while. Let me preface it by saying, “Don’t think meat diet, think carnivore.” Eating all the parts of the spleen, eyeballs, intestines, liver, heart, organs and testicles, every part of the animal. When you’re doing that, you are getting tons of nutritional value and you are eating the way the ancestors ate. They let nothing go to waste. They could not afford to let anything go to waste.
On the plant side, there is a lot of suggestions that may be becoming gardeners, planting agriculturists, wasn’t necessarily the best way of going about things. They show that the bacteria found in our mouth match bacteria found in the rats and mice that used to eat the grain, the bacteria that causes the cavities and so forth.
If you look at the indigenous cultures that don’t get a lot of the processed food or don’t have any of the processed food, they have beautiful teeth because they’re not building up all the toxins in their mouth that come from those things. That being said, plants have a long history like tubers and nuts as another source of calories and all the medicinal properties. I’m going to take this route. Everything should be in moderation. They’re good to everything but going too far in one way closes the door on benefits of the other. I will never talk about the benefits of a vegan diet. I’ll never talk about the benefits of a pure carnivore diet. There’s use in all things.
There seems to be a lot of evidence to support what you’re saying. When Dr. Price traveled the world, he met people in all different regions, all kinds of geographic settings from the people on the freezing tundras of Alaska to those in Switzerland or in the Southeast Pacific islands. They did honor their space and if they ate meat, they made use of the whole animal. They also had a very diverse diet in terms of the vegetation and the produce that they were eating.
We ate everything. If you look at the species on the planet, nothing has as big a diet as we do, from the fruits of the jungle down to mollusks picked up 50 feet from the bottom of the ocean floor.
Maybe this is why we’re sick also. Here’s another little theory. We eat the same thing. I’ll always have eggs for breakfast, broccoli and lamb for lunch and then a little slice of salmon and rice for dinner. We get into these ruts and our diet is far from diverse.
If you think back again, evolutionary seasons as the seasons change, different things were available. Especially as we hunted and gathered, we were wandering around. Diversity, you get different nutrients, even the calories, protein, starches, fats and all these sorts of things. They all work together.
We also hunger for diversity. If you think about people who get pre-packaged meal plans because they want to lose weight or something. Some people say they just get bored but it’s probably their body saying, “Don’t keep giving me the same thing over and over again. I’ve got to bust out of this.”
There’s been an interesting effect on people lost at sea. The people lost at sea usually have some fishing kits for catching fish and for a while, they’re just eating the meat from a fish. At some point like a switch flipped in their brain, they look at the fish eyeballs and go, “Those look delicious.” Instead of being disgusted by them, their brain is telling them, “That looks awesome. You should eat that.” That’s the same thing happening with the people eating the same thing day after day. At some point, the body says, “You know what? I need some other nutrients and they’re found in that. Eat that now.”
I want to go back to what you were saying about your own calling. To explore plant life and nature, explain to others and teach them about medicinal plants and edible plants. We’ll definitely check out your foraging site. Do you think there’s a sense in which we can all grow in this area as well and end up becoming medicine men ourselves?
Back in 2008 is when I started the Foraging Texas thing. Before that, I had a website devoted to hiking and camping in Texas but the posts that got people interested is when I mentioned some of the plants I found. Since then, almost everyone is curious about the plants around them. There’s some subconscious caveman part of them that constantly scans the environment and goes, “Can I eat that? Will that help me with something?”
It’s almost genetic in us. I’ve never encountered anyone that says, “I’m not interested in that. That’s boring.” It’s what we are at the most basic level. We are constantly scanning our environment for the things that can either help us or hurt us and plants being a huge part of our environment. Our brain is seeking those out too.
I’m thinking about those fishermen. Maybe it’s some kind of inner tug or pull saying to you, “Try this. Check this out. This could be good.” It’s partially also a quest for adventure. We’re tired of the same old and literally fatigued by it.
Humans crave novelty. They do get bored after a time.
No matter how much entertainment they watch on TV.
As good as the pizza is, eventually you’ll look for something else, some sushi or something like that.
If the reader could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
You might have heard the saying, “Let food be thy medicine.” I started out to let gathering food be thy medicine. Walk around and interact with nature. There are so many benefits for your brain by being stimulated by all the sensory input from nature. Walking on uneven ground has been shown to improve balance and core strength, which helps you especially later on in life. Just talking with your neighbors as you pick the weeds from their yards, there’s a social aspect. Go out, walk around, talk to people, interact with nature and get your benefits from it.
Thank you so much for your time, Mark. We appreciate it.
It’s my pleasure.
Our guest was Mark Merriwether Vorderbruggen, you can visit his website for more resources and information at MedicineManPlantCo.com. I’m Hilda Labrada Gore. I’m the host and producer of this show for the Wise Traditions family, the Weston A. Price Foundation. You can find me at HolisticHilda.com. Now, for our review from Apple Podcasts. “This! This! This!” from Leshe’. “I look forward to this podcast each week and will re-listen because it’s just that good! A wealth of knowledge and a love of health and information.”
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About Mark Vorderbruggen
Mark ”Merriwether” Vorderbruggen, Ph.D. is often (somewhat) jokingly described as a scientist raised by wolves. Having a M.S. in medicinal chemistry and a Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry, he brings science into the world of wild edible and medicinal plants. On the science side he has fourteen patents and numerous articles in research journals from his career as an R&D/ formulation chemist.
But his true love is plants and the miracles they contain. Since 2008 his website www.foragingtexas.com has been one of the top wild edible/medicinal plant sites on the internet; he’s written countless foraging articles for a wide variety of magazines; taught hundreds of foraging walkabouts; appeared on radio, TV, and podcasts galore; wrote the acclaimed book Idiot’s Guide Foraging, and was co-creator of the Wazoo Survival Gear foraging bandana.
In 2016 he turned his herbal chemistry skills to consumer goods to help develop the Workman’s Friend line of skin care products. In 2020 he made the biggest leap of his life to become the medicine man for Medicine Man Plant Co. where he can finally bring forth the ancient plants to help with modern issues. Check out these herbal products here on Amazon at www.amazon.com/medicinemanplantco
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