Searching for Nature’s Medicine

Searching for Nature’s Medicine

Jess Polanshek

A trip to the Sharri Mountains in the pursuit of folklore about plants.

In the summer of 2019, I traveled with a small research crew of three other scientists and a pair of photographers in the Sharri Mountains of Albania and Kosovo, situated in one of the most remote regions of the Balkans.

We crossed the border from Kosovo, leaving the beautiful and historic city center of Prizren, which we used as a hub for our research activities in the region. Like much of the Balkans, Prizren’s history was filled with periods of Roman, Byzantine, and then Ottoman rule, leaving a cultural melting pot of distinct languages and cultural customs scattered throughout the nearby mountain villages.

While the road was rough, the view was spectacular: wild and rugged, countless hilly meadows covered in multicolored wildflowers, as if a rainbow had sprinkled a blanket of color across the ground, majestic mountains in the distance. It was an unusually sunny day. Cumulus clouds floated above, as if daring us to take pictures of them hovering around Mount Gjallica—a limestone mountain covered in lush green coniferous forests, the highest summit in the region.

The other mountainsides were a mix of forest with expertly positioned terrace fields carved into the steep inclines, where locals grew a mix of seasonal vegetables and potatoes.

Five years earlier, I’d visited this region on an expedition with collaborators to document local practices concerning wild food foraging behaviors of Albanians and an ethnic minority group known as the Gorani. I’d been amazed not only by local people’s agricultural skills in farming this steep landscape but also their survival skills and ability to grow or wild-harvest enough food plants in the warm months, storing them in straw-lined dirt pits or fermenting them for consumption throughout the long winter. Some years, the snows were so heavy and the roads were so bad that it wasn’t possible to leave the villages for many months. There were no grocery stores in these remote communities. If they didn’t stock up, they would starve.

The fermentation of wild fruits—rose hips, plums, cornelian cherries, blackberries—into fizzy beverages consumed for their perceived health benefits fascinated me. Then there were the pickles, and these weren’t your standard grocery store vinegar-soaked cucumbers. Instead, there was a variety of lacto-fermented vegetables—delicious peppers, tomatoes, cabbages, cucumbers—that were prepared in brine and served with fresh local yogurt, cheese, and bread throughout the year, and especially in the heart of winter. Locals also held in-depth knowledge of wild sources of microbes that could kickstart the fermentation of different ingredients, such as the local yogurt beverage kos.

How much of an impact does cultural identity have on the ways people living in the same ecosystem use natural resources for food and medicine?

Our SUV continued the slow trek on curving paths until I spotted it gleaming in the distance. “We’re almost there,” I told the team. “That’s the dome to the mosque of Borje.” Borje was one of a few ethnic Gorani communities situated along the border region of Albania and Kosovo. They spoke a unique language and ascribed to cultural practices that were distinct from the mainstream Albanian communities situated on nearby mountainsides and valleys. One of the burning questions that we had was: How much of an impact does cultural identity have on the ways people living in the same ecosystem use natural resources for food and medicine? If all shared the same access to these wild ingredients, would they use them in similar ways? Or would these practices, like the names of the plants in their respective languages, differ substantially?

As we drove down the main street in this Gorani village, we passed hand-built rock homes, their roofs thatched with a special long-stalked variety of barley that doubles as a food source. We passed by an old man with sun-weathered skin leading a donkey with firewood strapped to its back. We parked the SUV near the heart of the village, in the shade of one of the many willow trees found along the path. Though this region is predominantly inhabited by Albanians, if a village in these parts of the mountains is filled with willow trees, there’s a good chance that it is a Gorani community. The white willow is sacred to them.

In the springtime celebration of Giorgidan (St. George’s Day), the Gorani decorate the entrances to their homes and businesses with willow branches to deflect the evil eye—a spiritual ailment and cause of misfortune. They also feed fresh leafy branches of willow to their livestock as a sort of immunity booster for the coming warm months ahead. Most special, though, is the white willow’s use in courtship.

When a young man is ready to propose marriage, he walks to the river with his friends to select a special willow tree to bring back to the village. It is a night of male bonding—full of raucous singing, drinking, and dancing. Upon return to the village, the tree is presented to the intended bride by leaving it on the threshold of her family’s home. If she accepts the proposal, the tree is planted in her father’s field. If she refuses, the tree is chopped up and burned. This practice is unique to the Gorani and not practiced by Albanian communities.

After grabbing our field gear from the car, we made our way to visit with one of the families that I’d interviewed before. They were working outside in the courtyard of their multigenerational home, two teenage girls assisting their mother and grandmother in tying up bundles of wild yarrow they’d collected just that morning to be dried in the sun. A large blanket was spread on the courtyard floor covered with fresh blooms of red clover. Speaking with the women, I learned that their harvest wasn’t intended for their own consumption; once dried, the plants would instead be bagged for sale to the middlemen who visited these communities to buy them for the herbal supplement industry.

Though in reality the financial benefit to the family was modest at best, it did serve as a supplement to their family income, a boost to funds raised through sale of their potato crop. Unfortunately, the wild harvest of herbal medicines by both Albanian and Gorani communities is seldom environmentally sustainable, and the increased desire for herbal supplements in trade (fueled by the multibillion-dollar dietary supplement enterprise) puts additional pressures on these wild plant populations.

[Also read: “7 Essential Medicinal Mints You Can Grow and Use in Teas.”]

Through conducting countless interviews with members of many communities in the region, we had found that the cultural lens through which one sees the environment does matter. When it came to medicinal and ritual plants, a clear distinction was evident. For example, the Gorani greatly valued plants like the white willow for their rituals and as a medicine and for its protective charms against the evil eye. The Albanian communities, on the other hand, most highly valued yarrow for treating everything from scrapes and cuts to toothache, while the Gorani had nearly no use for it. It was simply an herb of trade to them.

While both Gorani and Albanian communities differed in their medical traditions, they did share many wild food plants in common. Fresh stinging nettles were particularly favored as a green vegetable, harvested from wild patches of the herb growing around the village. The leaves were commonly blanched and then mixed with local cheeses and used to fill savory pies with flaky dough crusts. Then, there were the fruits like rose hips from the wild dog rose, subjected to a light fermentation to yield plenty of bubbles, but little alcohol, which were especially popular among the Gorani.

In regions of the world where post-war economic strife and food insecurity can take root, the cultural knowledge of how to use wild plants as food, medicine, and alternate sources of income can mean the difference between communities that flourish and those that struggle to survive. In our work in the Balkans, we found that knowledge of wild edible plants was fluid across cultural boundaries, but when it came to rituals and medicine, certain plant species were favored over others depending upon which culture the community most closely identified with. Developing a better appreciation for the human-nature interface is critical to the design of sustainable, culturally appropriate initiatives to promote health and economic development in different parts of the world.

A peak inside Jess Polanshek

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