March brings us Women's History Month, a time to reflect on the impact we as women have on our world and to raise awareness of the issues we are facing throughout modern society. Let's explore reproductive health and how plants have been our allies throughout the ongoing journey for the protection of reproductive rights.
When I refer to reproductive health, I'm referring to the different stages associated with specific sexual and reproductive health issues, such as menstruation, fertility, contraception, and pregnancy, as well as chronic health issues such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, and menopause. Before talking about reproductive health and what can be done to improve it, we must first briefly touch on the history of reproductive health justice.
Reproductive health has been especially challenging for poverty-stricken communities of color who have historically been the target of economic and reproductive injustice. The eugenics project in Mississippi beginning in the 1930s resulted in hundreds of women receiving unwanted sterilizations. These women were claimed to be mostly "mentally deficient" (Kaelber). Native women and women of color were wrongfully targeted and maligned, and their actual reproductive health needs were ignored. They were the victims of lawmakers' discrimination. The sterilization law in effect in Mississippi in 1928 was, frighteningly, not the first such legislation. Mississippi was the 26th state to pass such a horrific law. (Kaelber)
One hundred years prior, during the immoral days of slavery, African and Native Americans worked in cotton fields in the deep South. Many injustices took place amongst these fields of cotton. Cotton was considered the world's first luxury commodity, along with sugar and tobacco, therefore these plantations turned people of color into commodities as well (Henry). Enslaved women were subject to sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and childbearing, while still being forced to work in the fields beside enslaved men.
African American women and children in a Cotton field, 1860s. Credit: National Museum of African American History and Culture via Smithsonian Institution
Ironically, these women found that Gossypium hirsutum, commonly known as Cotton root bark, empowered them to provide themselves with some reproductive health care in a time when plantation owners neglected to provide any type of adequate health care. Cotton root was used by chewing on the fresh bark, and the root and seeds were made into a strong decoction that was drunk in times of need. It was used historically by these women for pregnancy-related issues. (L. Culpepper). The very plant these women were FORCED to grow was the same plant that gave them the herbal medicinal tool they needed to protect themselves from the results of sexual injustices that aRose on these plantations. What a powerful outlet this plant gave these struggling women. Today, Cotton root has additional known uses like supporting and encouraging healthy oxytocin response. This is also known as the love hormone and helps us feel more peaceful and connected.
In addition to Cotton root's historic uses, the opposite use could be said about Black Haw. Viburnum prunifolium, also known as Black Haw, was an ally used to support women during the delicate period of early pregnancy by toning and calming the uterus. This herb's rhythmic quality supported postpartum cramping and tension, therefore very popular amongst indigenous, African Americans, or historic midwives. Black Haw is related to the most famous cramp releaser, Viburnum opulus, also known as Cramp Bark. One can find Cramp Bark in most herbal formulas supporting menstrual cycle health.
Reproductive health has similar rhythmic waves as reproductive health justice; our reproductive systems are constantly changing like the social norms conducting women's reproductive rights. Further, one may expect a Tsunami wave of protest if adequate care and the right to choose for our own bodies are neglected.
Today, reproductive health has evolved and unquestionably improved. Our plant allies still remain there to assist us. The struggle still remains for many sisters of color, physical ability, and socioeconomic status. We can take back our power by learning about our reproductive systems and utilizing herbal allies, however, it's very important to follow appropriate practitioner and physician guidelines. Each body is unique and deserves adequate health care based on each reproductive transition or condition. I find it helpful to check with like-minded pharmacists for contraindications while using herbal formulas with medications to ensure my integrative health needs are safely addressed.
As I sit here in WishGarden's front office, smelling the sweet aromatics of processing herbal tinctures, it's clear that I am meant to be here; advocate for these plants while keeping women's stories alive. WishGarden's owner and formulator, Catherine Hunziker, has kept these historic herbs in her formulas since 1979 and continues to encourage ecological rituals with our plant friends. The extensive list of her formulas for women supports all stages of life from birth all the way through post-menopause. I invite you to look into these formulas that may support your reproductive transitions.
- Kaelber, Lutz "Mississippi", 4th Feb. 2021
- Gates, Henry "Why Was Cotton ‘King'?", 4th Feb. 2021
- (L. Culpepper. Gossypium spp. (Cotton Root Bark): A symbol of resistance, Vol.15, Number 2. PG 49-52).
Lauren Ann Nichols attended The Colorado School of Clinical Herbalism and received her certificate in medical herbalism. She is the owner of Herbal Vice, a small batch skin care company, and grows the herbs used in her products. She is currently a customer service representative at WishGarden Herbs.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or sell any product.