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.
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.