That giant oak tree across the street is a treasure trove of many uses. Those fragrant bay and pine trees on your favorite hike are useful too. Those marigolds on your deck hold a great many uses for beauty treatments. Herbs (both native and non) like chamomile, parsley, rosemary, and sage are all easy to find at your local nursery store and can be grown in the smallest window box.
Beyond getting plants from an indigenous healer, there are several ways to bring plants into your life. I use four sources for plants, which you can adjust depending on your interests and time. My philosophy is pretty close to that old 60’s slogan: “Act locally, think globally.” That could also just be my tribal way of thinking.
I am a bit of a traditionalist; I like to look around and see that is in my environment. If I see and smell and feel and hear a plant every day, I am much more interested in using that particular plant for healing or adornment. People are always amazed at how helpful plants are that we come in contact with everyday. Local parks, open spaces, regional and state parks, public lands: all of these display useful plants that are already familiar to you. Just make sure you ask permission before taking something that is not yours. Also, know what you are looking for and that the plant is in a safe place (i.e. not near highway or runoff pollutants). I like to say a little prayer of thanks when I harvest from a plant out in the wild, and I am careful not to damage it for return visits. When in doubt about harvesting, ask a local herbalist or healer, or consult one of the good books on plant harvesting (my personal favorite: anything by Michael Moore).
My second favorite place to find useful plants is in my own backyard or on my own deck. Through trial and error, I have developed a little ‘medicine chest’ of live plants that surround me everyday and that I nurture throughout the year. Healers in the old days rarely needed more than a dozen plants for everyday issues, and modern curanderas/os similarly limit themselves to under 20 medicinal plants. Your own climate and growing season and needs (and taste) will determine what the best astringent is for you to grow at your house, for instance. This is the best option for people who are not experienced in gathering plants from the wild, for at least “if you grow it you know it.” Many home grown plants are beautiful throughout the year, and if you’re lucky your local nursery can help you get started. Look under resources for some good books too. There really is something powerful about using plants you have cultivated yourself.
Every health food store or co-op has herbal extracts and products. Let’s face it, not everyone can collect or cultivate plants. And the plants that may be most useful to you might only be grown in alpine climates, for instance, or need to be processed in ways you are not experienced in. There is also the issue of skill and quality; generally (although not always) you can trust what you are buying at your local store. Talk to the store’s herbalist and you will usually get good advice about different products and herbal companies. Finally, you may have a sore neck that could really benefit from some Arnica right now: there’s no time to go find some high mountain old growth forest, it is not June when the flowers are in bloom, and you would add to your stress (and sore neck) just thinking about it. That’s where a local store really comes in handy. Just be sure to vow to protect those old trees once your neck pain is gone, so that Arnica will always be there to work its magic.
The Web has opened up a whole new era in information sharing about plants (as demonstrated by this website). You can do all your own research and buying online if you choose to. Online shopping also allows you to comparison shop for the best prices if you live in an area that has few nurseries or health food stores. You will quickly discover which websites have good reputations. You can also find out which herbal farms are located nearby so you can be sure to get plants that thrive in your local environment. This is important both for the plants’ happiness and yours. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to get an Echinacea plant (that you bought at any Target or Home Depot nationwide) to grow in a hilly California coastal climate when it clearly prefers the wide open prairies west of Ohio.