The Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association Conference in Vancouver September 23rd.

Chanchal Cabrera

A speaker at CHTA’s annual conference and co-owner of Gardens without Borders, Chanchal Cabrera shares her thoughts on horticultural therapy and herbal medicine.

What are the goals of Gardens without Borders?

Gardens without Borders is a federally registered not-for-profit that was founded 10 years ago to deliver horticultural therapy programs. Over the years, we have assisted numerous seniors,

adults with developmental delays, children with Aspergers and autism and many other folks who have enjoyed the gardens and the farm environment. More recently, GwB has expanded to take on the running of the botanic garden at Innisfree Farm. We are a seven-acre site specializing in food and medicinal plants. We teach people how to grow, harvest and prepare their own remedies, and how to cook and appreciate farm-fresh foods. We want to empower people in food and medicine security by teaching them practical skills.

How do the gardens at Innisfree Farm offer a therapeutic environment?

For some participants it is simply the opportunity to be outdoors in a tranquil place with no traffic or other human sounds, just the wind in the trees and the birds singing. Walking the labyrinth, smelling the roses, si􏰂ing by the pond—all of these offer the chance to slow down, unwind a bit and let go of stress and tension. Others need a structured program with planned activities such as picking and pressing flowers, planting a container garden to take home, making nature art and so on. Still others are able to work in the garden beds alongside our interns and volunteers, share our community lunch, and benefit from the physical activities, camaraderie and sense of contributing to the community at the farm. We customize the garden offerings to suit each individual.

Whats the relationship between horticultural therapy and herbal medicine?

HT is herbal medicine come to life! They are like two sides of the same coin. When I was in graduate school doing my masters of science in herbal medicine at the University of Wales, I did my thesis on quality of life parameters for long term breast cancer survivors who had used herbal medicine. It required advanced statistical analysis and lots of abstract reasoning, and although I was documenting some profound healing from the herbs, I also realized that the tinctures, capsules and pills used had done nothing to deepen their relationship with nature or the ultimate source of their healing. Perhaps I could say that the herbal medicine I was studying and practicing felt unconnected to the actual plants. Thats when I had a sort of epiphany—one of those bolts from the blue that are often a good idea and always disruptive, an intuition that more or less told me to re-focus my work from product to plant, from clinic to garden. I immediately enrolled in the HT program with Christine Pollard at Providence Farm and have been working on the amalgamation and integration of the two practices ever since. So the relationship for me, in my practice, is completely fluid; they are useful, effective and valuable.

One of the unspoken and unofficial but nonetheless critical roles of the herbalist is to strengthen peoples relationship with nature, to assist them in connecting to the greater whole and to understand their own roles and responsibilities in the natural order. By deepening a patient’s appreciation of and concern for nature the patient receives healing on a very deep and profound level, far beyond chemical constituents or carefully constructed formulas.

How can horticultural therapists use herbal medicine for the benefit of their clients?

Aromatherapy can be introduced in subtle ways such as a sprig of herb to wear in a lapel or breast pocket: lavender for someone who is agitated, rosemary for someone who is forgetful, rose or geranium for someone who is sad, mint for someone who is lethargic. Every patient in my practice gets a herbal tea to drink to help reinforce the connection to the actual plants, not just extracts and potions, but the actual flowers, roots, barks and leaves, and it deepens their appreciation of nature. Although I prescribe therapeutic blends, its easy for anyone who is not a trained herbalist to use herbs safely and effectively in these ways.

Another simple HT program might involve growing plants and herbs such as lemon balm, peppermint, bee balm, linden, anise hyssop, rose petals and so on, that are easy to grow, taste great and that pose no risk when consumed as a pleasurable tea or tisane.

Taking HT participants on herb walks might also be an option. Depending on the training of the horticulture therapist, whether they have studied anything about herbs or plants as well, it might be as simple as trying to find five yellow flowers or searching for wild berries or mushrooms—to look at, not to eat!—or identifying medicinal plants in gardens, woods and parks.

Another great HT activity is to make natural skin care products or natural household cleaning products. Using healthy ingredients and essential oils—a li􏰂le goes a long way—people can make something healthy and useful.

What is most satisfying about what you do?

On a professional level, obviously it is when patients get be􏰂er, when they dont need me anymore. But on a personal level, my happiest times are when Im working in the gardens. Obviously, I am benefiting from the horticultural therapy going on here too.

Any final thoughts?

As much as HT is a natural corollary to herbal medicine, so the reverse is also true. If horticultural therapists want a profession, a career, a vocation, of healing with plants then they might want to consider training to become a professional clinical herbalist. The two disciplines are inextricably interwoven and mutually complementary.

With an MSc in herbal medicine and 28 years of clinical practice, Chanchal Cabrera is also a certified horticulture therapist and a Master Gardener. In 2005 she founded Gardens without Borders and operates Innisfree Farm and Botanic Garden in Royston, B.C. She has been a member of CHTA since 2005

to Professor Kevin Folta about GMO "science"

Dear Professor Folta,

Your blog of March 27 (Activist-inspired pseudo-scientific nonsense is creeping into legitimate scientific forums) posted on the Web site “Science 2.0" succeeded in cancelling my lecture at the Museum of Science in Houston.   Rice University – next door, was eager to host the lecture and provided their media centre with excellent facilities – so no damage done, other than attracting the attention of the local press – that kind of cancellation was so far unknown in Houston.   

I appreciated your enthusiasm to “debunk junk GMO science” but your remarks were misplaced.  I am not participating in the controversy about the genetic engineering technology. What I speak publicly about is the pollution of our food crops and contamination of our food with the herbicide RoundUp.    I start my lecture by describing the molecule and its various uses (patents), then I comment on a few papers showing toxicity.

I begin with a statement from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine – a group of medical doctors, that took a public position in 2009 and requested a moratorium on engineered foods, based on their readings of scientific studies showing oxidative stress, infertility, immune system dysregulation, accelerated aging, changes in the gastrointestinal tract, including liver and kidney failure.  These are MDs, perhaps not real scientists, but they can read animal studies.

I continue by explaining that most engineered crops today are RoundUp Ready.  Yes there are other crops engineered to resist pests or diseases, or with a better nutrient profiles, or engineered to tolerate environmental conditions, or to reduce spoilage, but most of them are still on a minuscule acreage, or still on the shelf.  Most GMO crops today have been engineered with a bacterial gene to confer resistance to glyphosate.  GMOs are Glyphosate Modified Organisms.

I speak of the origins of this molecule patented by Stauffer Chemicals in 1964 as a descaling agent – a chemical that cleans up the mineral scales in industrial pipes and boilers.   In chemistry and biology we call it a powerful chelator.   I go briefly over the phosphonic acid part of the molecule.  And also glyphosate as an amino acid analog, easily mistaken and incorporated into proteins.

It did not take many years for somebody at the chemical corporation Monsanto to figure out that a chemical that kills bacteria and plants can make a lot more money if sold as a herbicide rather than as a descaling agent.   The Patent Office granted a patent for a new use in 1969.  The formulated herbicide was marketed in 1974 under the brand name RoundUp, a powerful and non selective herbicide, that kills plants and bacteria by shutting down their protein biochemical pathways, a wonderful product that has in theory no animal toxicity because animals do not have the vulnerable pathways.

The game changed in 1996, with the release of soy and corn RoundUp Ready crops - engineered with a bacterial gene that can still function in the presence of the (antibiotic) chelator.   Then we quickly had cotton, canola, and sugar beet and these RoundUp Ready crops revolutionized Industrial Ag.  The crops can be planted without the standard preventive weed control.  They are sprayed later when most of the weeds have sprouted and more than one spray is normal.  And the game changed again when it became normal to spray non engineered crops just before harvest to chemically dry them.  The antibiotic/herbicide has been sprayed on most grain and seed crops as a dessicant  for many years now.   Of course the residue levels must be much higher in foods made from grains and seeds that were sprayed just before harvest, than engineered crops sprayed in the first few weeks of their growth.  We have come from using this chemical as a regular herbicide to spray before planting the crops, to spray once or twice a few weeks later during the early growth of the plants, to finally spray the crops a week before harvest.   Extreme residue levels of glyphosate in food crops are now considered legal and normal.

Then comes the second part of my lecture where I comment on several studies showing toxicity.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient of the herbicide RoundUp is patented as an antiparasitic agent with a long list of claims as a non selective antibiotic - that kills bacteria at 1 ppm.  I call glyphosate an antibiotic masquerading as a herbicide.  

In case you are not too familiar with recent discoveries in Microbiome research, allow me to make a brief summary.  All animals have a symbiotic association with trillions of bacteria that appear essential to their good health.  This community of thousands of species of bacteria we call the Microbiome.  In humans it is mostly in the intestine. Most of our organs are influenced by these symbionts; another way to say it is that most of our organ depend on the integrity of the Microbiome, notably the brain and the immune and digestive systems.  Residues of antibiotic glyphosate higher than one part per million in our food could result in damages to the Microbiome and lead to epidemics of chronic illnesses like autism, diabetes, Alzheimer, and cancer.   Monsanto and the regulatory agencies have not released their data on the levels of contamination in Canada and in the USA.  Perhaps you have data to document that the residues in most foods are below1 ppm, please let me know.

I spend the rest of my lecture reviewing a few papers reporting on cell and animal experiments and cite quickly studies showing endocrine disruption, oxidative stress, inflammation, and cancer.  The WHO consulting experts like Professor Portier say it well on cancer risk in this german documentary on YouTube.  

I finish with the peer reviewed study of  Dr Nancy Swanson who analyzed masses of data from the Centre for Disease Control - statistics on Autism and Ahlzeimer and Dementia, and organ failure and cancer  - and she did a statistical analysis with the data on amounts of glyphosate that was sprayed on corn and soy in the USA from 1990 to 2010.   The correlation coefficients were consistently extremely high making it possible that glyphosate is the responsible agent for these epidemics.  Her data analysis suggest that some or most of the food system may contain residues of glyphosate upward of 1 ppm.

The time has come for glyphosate to return to its days as a herbicide sprayed on weeds.   The social and medical costs of spraying our food crops with this antibiotic are too high to justify its current use in Industrial Agriculture. 

Thierry Vrain

April 8, 2016