Montreal Gazette

Herbal­ist Marie Provost’s story re­flects growth of plant- based heal­ing

Plant- based heal­ing is be­com­ing more widely ac­cepted, says Bill Zacharkiw. He talks to herbal­ist Marie Provost, whose busi­ness, La Clef des Champs, in Val- David, re­flects the growth of the in­dus­try.

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As one of the haz­ards of my job, I know all too well about tak­ing care of my­self af­ter im­bib­ing. I’m on the road for work three months a year, and that of­ten means eat­ing and drink­ing in ex­cess. When I get home, I take a few days to purge my body. I wrote a col­umn about detox­i­fi­ca­tion in Jan­uary that struck a chord: I re­ceived a num­ber of emails ask­ing for my herbal- based detox recipe.

I have been us­ing plants as a way of treat­ing ail­ments for more than 15 years, and rely on them more and more. When I started, my friends were skep­ti­cal — and that’s putting it kindly.

But I’m a prag­matic fel­low, and I con­tinue to turn to plants be­cause they work for me. I used to have re­cur­ring stom­ach ul­cers, which I treated for a year with pre­scribed med­i­ca­tions. I felt bet­ter, but my ul­cers kept com­ing back. So I did a two- week treat­ment of con­cen­trated camomile tea, and con­tinue to drink camomile as part of my daily tisane reg­i­men. I have not had an ul­cer since. Stung by a wasp? Even my chil­dren know to look in the grass for plan­tain, a com­mon weed that one can find in al­most any lawn or field. They chew on the leaf to make a salve, and then ap­ply it to the sting. Re­lief comes in min­utes.

Fif­teen years ago, when my wife took a job as chief of the gar­dens at La Clef des Champs in the Lau­ren­tian vil­lage of Val- David, I knew very lit­tle about plants. Nei­ther of us used them. But over time, and with the con­sul­ta­tion of owner/ herbal­ist Marie Provost, we be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing. Her story, in many ways, re­flects the growth of the in­dus­try that sig­nals a grow­ing ac­cep­tance of us­ing al­ter­na­tive meth­ods of heal­ing.

Provost started La Clef des Champs in 1978 when a lo­cal herbal­ist “sold me her ‘ busi­ness,’ ” Provost said with a smile, “which in­cluded a crock pot, some jars and a ver­bal recipe of how to make her ‘ boo- boo cream.’ ”

Provost had just re­turned from a trip to South Amer­ica via Cal­i­for­nia where she had come into con­tact with the de­vel­op­ing coun­ter­cul­ture in Cal­i­for­nia. “It was the be­gin­ning of sev­eral move­ments such as raw food, as well as al­ter­na­tive heal­ing,” Provost said. Key among the many peo­ple she met was John Christo­pher.

“Dr. Christo­pher was a herbal­ist who taught and inspired a gen­er­a­tion of herbal­ists in the United States, and his book, The School of Nat­u­ral Heal­ing, be­came my bi­ble,” Provost said. But when she got back to Que­bec, she re­al­ized quickly that there was very lit­tle ac­cep­tance of us­ing plants as medicine.

Part of the prob­lem was a lack of literature on the sub­ject in French. Com­pound­ing the prob­lem, Provost noted, was that the literature avail­able in French came from France. “You can’t ex­pect to have the same re­sults with Mediter­ranean plants,” she ex­plained. “But I did find sim­i­lar­i­ties with plants in Switzer­land and es­pe­cially Aus­tria. I de­cided to cre­ate my own vi­sion of medic­i­nal plants, us­ing the plants that could be found here.”

Provost found a part­ner in another de­vel­op­ing move­ment in Que­bec, mid­wifery. “In 1979, I was preg­nant with my first child, and chose to use a mid­wife. I stayed close to their move­ment and I saw that our bat­tles with both public and gov­ern­men­tal ac­cep­tance were very sim­i­lar. In many ways, it helped me pre­pare my­self for the bat­tle I faced 15 years later when it came time to reg­u­late the medic­i­nal plant in­dus­try.”

Provost, who ad­mits she was a “counter- cul­ture anar­chist” at the time, spent the ’ 80s for­ag­ing for wild plants and ex­per­i­ment­ing and re­fin­ing her craft. Plants she couldn’t find wild, she found in gar­dens, in­clud­ing hos­pi­tals.

“The nuns who worked at Hô­tel Dieu had a huge medic­i­nal plant gar­den,” Provost said. “I would bring back cut­tings and planted them in my first gar­den in Val- David. I started giv­ing clin­ics, and my first clients were mostly the older gen­er­a­tion of Val- David who would come see me to treat such things as arthri­tis and gout.”

“But back then,” Provost said, “you had to make a choice. You couldn’t go to your doc­tor and tell him or her that you were us­ing ti­sanes or medic­i­nal plants.”

In 1990, Provost de­cided that she needed to make La Clef des Champs a real busi­ness. Up to that point, she didn’t even have a tele­phone. “I re­ally felt that I had ac­quired enough knowl­edge that I could only share it prop­erly if I started a le­git­i­mate busi­ness. Then in 1996, I re­ceived a let­ter from Health Canada say­ing that I had six months to register to be­come a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany.”

Back ( in the ’ 80s) you had to make a choice. You couldn’t go to your doc­tor and tell him or her that you were us­ing ti­sanes or medic­i­nal plants.

For Provost, be­com­ing a real busi­ness also meant be­com­ing an in­dus­try lob­by­ist. “Af­ter the Health Canada let­ter, the whole medic­i­nal plant in­dus­try across Canada came to­gether to say that plants are not drugs. In Canada, the reg­u­la­tory body deals with both food and drugs. Our in­dus­try fell in the mid­dle as we are nei­ther.”

“We were lucky. Allan Rock be­came health min­is­ter and he cre­ated a com­mis­sion to study the in­dus­try. I went to Ot­tawa to present my brief in front of the stand­ing com­mit­tee on health. A year later, the re­port rec­om­mended that the in­dus­try should be reg­u­lated, but that plants should be con­sid­ered low- risk prod­ucts.”

When asked about the stance the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try took on the medic­i­nal plant in­dus­try, Provost said: “I’ve sat on var­i­ous com­mit­tees for 10 years, and I can tell you that, if any­thing, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal in­dus­try helped me. We both wanted our in­dus­try reg­u­lated. Be­sides, they don’t want to be mak­ing creams out of fresh herbs.”

The reg­u­la­tions were adopted in 2004. But there were more than 5,000 pro­duc­ers and 50,000 prod­ucts avail­able. It took un­til 2014 to get the tran­si­tion fin­ished.

Provost said she be­lieves the new reg­u­la­tions will help bring medic­i­nal plants more into the main­stream. “If you see a medic­i­nal plant prod­uct with claims that it will heal a par­tic­u­lar ail­ment, it’s be­cause Health Canada has stud­ied it, ex­am­ined ap­proved dosages and how it’s made, and said yes, you can say that.”

It will take time for the in­dus­try to be more ac­cepted by the med­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, Provost said. “The nurs­ing com­mu­nity was the first to ac­cept the idea of us­ing plants. The next group will be the phar­ma­cists, as they are see­ing more and more peo­ple try­ing nat­u­ral prod­ucts, and they are the ones who use the Nat­u­ral Data­base to check for pos- sible con­flicts be­tween drugs and plants.”

Do­minic Sabourin, a phar­ma­cist in Ste- Agathe, ex­plained that “we have more and more in­for­ma­tion about nat­u­ral prod­ucts, in­clud­ing Passe­port Santé and trained- phar­ma­cists like Jean- Yves Dionne who help de­mys­tify medic­i­nal plants, but our fo­cus is still on tra­di­tional medicines where there is an abun­dance of proof of their ef­fi­ciency, which isn’t al­ways the case with medic­i­nal plants.”

Medic­i­nal plants are like a bridge be­tween “mother love” and chicken soup, and mod­ern medicine, Provost said. “I’m not against mod­ern medicine,” she ex­plained. “But I raised three chil­dren, and only once did I ever have to take them to the clinic for an­tibi­otics.”

She warns against be­ing overly dog­matic. “When the doc­tor at the clinic showed me my son’s X- ray that re­vealed he had pneu­mo­nia, he was wor­ried be­cause I was a herbal­ist and asked me what I was go­ing to do. I’m not crazy. Peo­ple used to die from pneu­mo­nia, so of course I gave him an­tibi­otics. Medic­i­nal plants are not a re­li­gion!”

Provost said she be­lieves that us­ing medic­i­nal plants of­fers more tools to in­ter­vene with ill­ness be­fore seek­ing out doc­tors. “Peo­ple go to the clinic at the first sign of some­thing wrong. But let’s say your child wakes up with a fever. The first step most peo­ple will do is keep their child home from school. That’s a form of heal­ing. The dif­fer­ence is in­stead of be­ing pas­sive,” she ex­plains, “and hop­ing that their ill­ness will go away, plants give you more tools. Peo­ple like you and I stay away longer from the hos­pi­tal be­cause we feel com­fort­able with our ca­pac­ity as heal­ers.”

So what does she ad­vise peo­ple in­ter­ested in find­ing out more about medic­i­nal plants? She sug­gested many routes. The vast ma­jor­ity of plants that are used to heal chronic prob­lems like arthri­tis, eczema, headaches and men­strual prob­lems are nu­tri­tive plants that have few counter- in­di­ca­tions.

“You don’t even need to stop your med­i­ca­tion. If you are wor­ried,” she con­tin­ued, “con­tra- in­di­ca­tions are easy to find on Health Canada’s web­site. But if you are ner­vous, then go see an ac­cred­ited herbal­ist.”

Cather­ine Turnbull, who has been work­ing in the nat­u­ral prod­uct in­dus­try for eight years, said she has seen in­ter­est in­crease dra­mat­i­cally. I asked her about who is com­ing into her store, Marché Tau on St- De­nis St., for con­sul­ta­tion.

“Peo­ple are def­i­nitely more open to it,” she said. “I find that the ma­jor­ity of our clients tend to be fe­male, and stu­dents.”

She ex­plained that “of­ten they are peo­ple who are look­ing for al­ter­na­tives be­cause they have tried ev­ery­thing with­out suc­cess. Some know ex­actly what they are look­ing for, while oth­ers are brand new to this type of treat­ment.”

While the treat­ment is con­sid­ered al­ter­na­tive, the ap­proach is main­stream in that it looks be­yond the sim­ple ail­ment in ques­tion. “We not only pre­scribe treat­ments for ail­ments, but we try and get to the cause of the prob­lems,” Turnbull said. “We lis­ten. Of­ten these prob­lems are linked to lifestyle habits such as diet.”

Like Provost, I am not against mod­ern medicine. But I can list dozens of cases where plants have shown their ef­fi­ciency in heal­ing my ail­ment, from se­ri­ous burns to headaches to in­som­nia. There are many doubters, who like phar­ma­cist Sabourin are wait­ing for more proof about their ef­fi­ciency. “When the proof is there, I am open to these prod­ucts, but our in­dus­try has been trained to work from solid ground, from sci­en­tific proof.”

I, for one, welcome more test­ing and hope new in­dus­try reg­u­la­tion will spawn more re­search. And if there is a sign that times are chang­ing, this would be it: un­like back in the ’ 80s, our fam­ily doc­tor is open and in­ter­ested, al­beit still ret­i­cent, about the way we use plants.

As for my detox recipe: on my trav­els, I carry a tinc­ture of milk this­tle, which I use to keep my liver in shape. When I get home, I take a prod­uct called Liver­top, a mix of var­i­ous herbs that is used for di­ges­tive dis­or­ders. I also drink two litres of my tisane ev­ery night, a mix of net­tle, red clover, camomile and mint.

 ?? P H O T O S : D AV E S I D AWAY/ MO N T R E A L G A Z E T T E ?? Most plants can safely treat ev­ery­day ail­ments from headaches to hot flashes, herbal­ist Marie Provost says. You can hear her de­scribe the ben­e­fits of yar­row, one of the plants she grows at La Clef des Champs, in a video by Dave Sidaway at mon­tre­al­gazette. com
P H O T O S : D AV E S I D AWAY/ MO N T R E A L G A Z E T T E Most plants can safely treat ev­ery­day ail­ments from headaches to hot flashes, herbal­ist Marie Provost says. You can hear her de­scribe the ben­e­fits of yar­row, one of the plants she grows at La Clef des Champs, in a video by Dave Sidaway at mon­tre­al­gazette. com
 ??  ?? Echi­nacea, or cone­flower, is a pop­u­lar herb, es­pe­cially for the treat­ment of flu and colds. Medic­i­nal plants are like a bridge be­tween “mother love” and chicken soup, and mod­ern medicine, says herbal­ist Marie Provost.
Echi­nacea, or cone­flower, is a pop­u­lar herb, es­pe­cially for the treat­ment of flu and colds. Medic­i­nal plants are like a bridge be­tween “mother love” and chicken soup, and mod­ern medicine, says herbal­ist Marie Provost.
 ?? PIERRE OBENDRAUF / MON­TREAL GAZETTE ?? Natur­opath Cather­ine Turnbull has a closer look at the medic­i­nal plants at Marché Tau on St- De­nis St.
PIERRE OBENDRAUF / MON­TREAL GAZETTE Natur­opath Cather­ine Turnbull has a closer look at the medic­i­nal plants at Marché Tau on St- De­nis St.
 ?? DAVE SIDAWAY/ MON­TREAL GAZETTE ?? Plants have shown their ef­fi­ciency in heal­ing a num­ber of ail­ments.
DAVE SIDAWAY/ MON­TREAL GAZETTE Plants have shown their ef­fi­ciency in heal­ing a num­ber of ail­ments.
 ?? DAVE SIDAWAY / MON­TREAL GAZETTE ?? Marie Provost, owner of La Clef des Champs in Val- David, be­lieves us­ing medic­i­nal plants of­fers more tools to in­ter­vene with ill­ness be­fore seek­ing out doc­tors.
DAVE SIDAWAY / MON­TREAL GAZETTE Marie Provost, owner of La Clef des Champs in Val- David, be­lieves us­ing medic­i­nal plants of­fers more tools to in­ter­vene with ill­ness be­fore seek­ing out doc­tors.

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