Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in the Environmental Histories of Foraging series edited by Nicole Miller. You can read other posts in this series here.
In the modern world, the practice of foraging medicinal plants has become a widespread global activity, subject to regulation by respective governments. The permissibility of this activity varies depending on the specific species, locations, and periods defined by each government. Moreover, some states may actively encourage the collection of plants for medicinal purposes, further contributing to the diversity of approaches towards this practice.
Pioneers and schoolchildren! Collect and dry wild medicinal plants. Pharmacies accept the roots of valerian and purified marshmallow, herbs such as gentian, St. John's wort, oregano, wormwood, immortelle flowers, linden and chamomile in dry form for cash. Take the collected medicinal plants to pharmacies for making medicines. Ask the pharmacy for instructions on how to collect and dry herbs. The Main Pharmacy Administration of the Ministry of Health of the Ukrainian SSR.
During the Soviet era (1922-1991), the practice of foraging wild plants for medicinal purposes held great importance for the entire population of the USSR. Throughout Soviet history, the recognition of the value inherent in using medicinal plants for the treatment of illnesses remained steadfast while also undergoing notable transformations. In this context, two distinct approaches can be identified: the foraging of wild plants for personal needs, which exhibited a consistent and relatively uniform practice, and the collection of these plants for state procurement, which underwent minor regional variations and fluctuated in intensity over time. By examining these two dimensions, we can gain a deeper understanding of how the utilisation of wild plants in treatment evolved within the Soviet times.
Shortly after the creation of the young Soviet state in 1922, a special decree was issued regarding the collection and cultivation of medicinal plants. Consequently, the gathering of wild herbs and cultivation of medicinal crops began to be carried out in a strategic and planned manner3. This initiative resulted in an unprecedented flourishing of medicinal plant foraging as well as the revival of state-funded research to discover new crops. In 1930, specialized experimental stations for growing medicinal plants were established in different geographical zones of the country.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), the intensity of foraging for the state reached its highest point. As the war commenced, there was an urgent demand to supply the Soviet army with plant medicines made from locally sourced raw materials. In the spring of 1942, The Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree on the procurement of medicinal plants by the pharmacy network and approved a plan of foraging. Through extensive promotional efforts by the pharmacy network and local Soviet youth organisations, the foraging of medicinal raw materials during the war turned into a national event. Furthermore, starting in 1943, the pharmacy network’s significant involvement in procuring medicinal plants led to the introduction of a bonus payment for exceeding the procurement plan by over 115%. This demonstrated that the Soviet government tried to provide not only ideological incentives but also material rewards for people.4
Children! The Soviet people are waging a great patriotic war against mortal enemies - the fascists. The best forces of Soviet medicine were selflessly working at the front and in the rear, helping the wounded soldiers. Now more than ever, it is necessary to collect medicinal herbs, fruits, and berries, from which it is possible to prepare medicines. Valerian root, rose hips, blueberries and raspberries, bearberry leaf, chamomile flowers, ergot horns, and lily of the valley - these plants are now of paramount medicinal importance. It is the duty of pioneers and schoolchildren to collect as many medicinal raw materials as possible. Pioneer units, and classes, under the guidance of botanists, biologists, and pioneer leaders, should go to the fields and forests and collect medicinal plants. Pupils of the first, second and third grades can take part in this important and useful work for the motherland. Well-dried medicinal raw materials should be delivered to the nearest pharmacy or the procurement point of the Soviet Association of Medicinal Plants. All pharmacies of the Soviet Union and branches of the Soviet Association of Medicinal Plants are obliged to receive medicinal plants from the population according to the established prices. Pioneers and schoolchildren! Collect medicinal plants - by doing so, you will help the heroic Red Army and the entire Soviet people to destroy fascist bandits. Information on which plants to collect and how best to dry them will be provided at the nearest pharmacy or the young naturalists' clubs. You can also read about it in Pionerskaya Pravda on 12 July. Deputy People's Commissar of Health of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics A.G. Terentyev
Letter to pioneers and schoolchildren from the Ministry of Health USSR, urging the necessity of collecting medicinal plants during wartime with translation below. From the newspaper Pionerskaya Pravda [Pioneer Truth] 1941, № 085 (2597). Russian State Children’s Library. National Electronic Children’s Library. Archive of digitised materials. RU/RGDB/BIBL/0000505769. Open Access.
In the post-war years, the protection and rational use of medicinal plant resources became increasingly important. The Soviet discourse emphasized the need for careful foraging. An essential role in organising the collection during that period was played by the Commission for Assistance in the Collection of Wild Plants, which was established under the Central Committee of the Komsomol. The commission comprised representatives of procurement organisations, scientists, Komsomol and pioneer organisations. Its primary purpose was to promote the foraging of wild plants (useful for medicine and food) among schoolchildren, pioneers, and Komsomol members. They aimed to encourage as many students as possible to participate in the collection efforts by giving them precise information on how to recognise plants, where to collect them, how to dry and store plants, and so on. To better contribute to plant foraging, they also seek the support of regional and district committees, local education authorities, school principals, and teachers in assisting the collection organisations with gathering wild medicinal plants.
During the period between 1960-80, the coordination of procurement functions among various organizations was overseen by the USSR Ministry of Procurement. The government-approved plan was transmitted to local procurement organizations, rural consumer societies, pharmacies, and other entities involved in the procurement process.5 In 1977, a Regulation on the Collection and Drying of Essential Medicinal Raw Materials was introduced and approved. This comprehensive regulation aimed to govern state-sanctioned medicinal plant foraging. It clearly defined the rights and responsibilities of collectors and outlined specific gathering processes tailored to different age groups within the population. The regulation established a precise system of rules, which required strict adherence from foragers. Deviating from these rules could lead to the spoilage of a significant amount of valuable raw materials.
Specifically, local individuals were recruited by purchasing organizations as collection organizers, commonly referred to as ‘agents-collectors,’ who received a commission for their services. The local population was mobilized for collection activities, where they gathered freshly harvested plants. These plants were then dried and processed according to the prescribed procedures before being delivered to designated collection points. The workers of village selpo (consumer cooperatives) and pharmacies, who were directly involved in the organization and management of the medicinal plant collection, received a wage increase based on a percentage of the value of the harvested raw materials.
The popularity and promotion of foraging medicinal plants was achieved through various means, such as through local press and radio, distribution of brochures and leaflets, and posting colourful posters in public places. These efforts significantly contributed to the success of foraging. By 1990, a well-organized system for the production and procurement of medicinal plants had been established in the USSR. The central system involved a substantial workforce of collectors, including schoolchildren, who harvested plants through consumer societies and pharmacies. As a result, medicinal plant foraging had become a well-established and dynamically developing industry by the time of the USSR’s collapse. It had the potential to reduce the reliance on raw material imports and presented opportunities for increased exports.
However, the development of these practices varied across different Soviet republics, displaying diverse dynamics.6 While some regions experienced more intensive growth, others showed slower progress. Factors such as promotion in state media and the level of interest among the local population influenced the expansion of gathering activities for the state. Foraging for medicinal plants was a laborious task, but it provided crucial economic support, especially in rural areas. By appreciating the context in which medicinal plant knowledge is applied and acknowledging its evolution, we gain invaluable insights into the intricate interplay between societies and their environments. This, in turn, enriches our understanding of the profound connections between humans and the healing wonders of the plant kingdom.
In conclusion, the Soviet state played a significant role in regulating foraging practices, thereby influencing how people perceived plants and their environment. The state’s impact on the people-nature relationship is evident. However, despite the establishment of a vast system for gathering medicinal plants, some individuals lacked comprehensive knowledge of the entire process.
Our journey is far from over, and we’re thrilled to continue unveiling the stories hidden within the plants and the communities we’ve encountered. Understanding foraging as a specific cultural practice, from both historical and present-day perspectives, is crucial for preserving cultural heritage and fostering sustainable relationships with nature.
This research was conducted with the generous financial support of the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant number 714874) and the Chilean National Agency for Research and Development (Doctoral Fellowship N° 21210819, ANID 2021).
1 Translated from Russian.
2 The Komsomol, also known as the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, was a youth organisation in the former Soviet Union. It was founded in 1918 and served as the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The main purpose was to promote communist ideology among young people and prepare them to become active members of the Communist Party and the state.
3 Conroy, M. S. (2006). The Soviet Pharmaceutical Business during its first two decades (1917-1937) (Vol. 202). Peter Lang.
4 Conroy, M. S. (2008). Medicines for the Soviet masses during World War II. University Press of Amer.
5 Newsholme, A., & Kingsbury, J. A. (2013). Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia. Elsevier.
6 See also:
Sõukand, R., Kalle, R., & Pieroni, A. (2022). Homogenisation of Biocultural Diversity: Plant Ethnomedicine and Its Diachronic Change in Setomaa and Võromaa, Estonia, in the Last Century. Biology, 11(2), 192. MDPI AG. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/biology11020192
Belichenko, O., Kolosova, V., Kalle, R., & Sõukand, R. (2022). Green pharmacy at the tips of your toes: medicinal plants used by Setos and Russians of Pechorsky District, Pskov Oblast (NW Russia). Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 18(1), 1-38.
Mattalia, G., Stryamets, N., Pieroni, A., & Sõukand, R. (2020). Knowledge transmission patterns at the border: Ethnobotany of Hutsuls living in the Carpathian Mountains of Bukovina (SW Ukraine and NE Romania). Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 16(1), 1-40.
Mattalia, G., Stryamets, N., Grygorovych, A., Pieroni, A., & Sõukand, R. (2021). Borders as crossroads: The diverging routes of herbal knowledge of Romanians living on the Romanian and Ukrainian sides of Bukovina. Frontiers in pharmacology, 11, 598390.
Aziz, M. A., Mattalia, G., Sulaiman, N., Shah, A. A., Polesny, Z., Kalle, R., … & Pieroni, A. (2022). The nexus between traditional foraging and its sustainability: a qualitative assessment among a few selected Eurasian case studies. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 1-26.
Centralization damages Local Ecological Knowledge: results of DiGe (ERCSG): an interview with Renata Sõukand https://www.unive.it/pag/16584/?tx_news_pi1%5Bnews%5D=14640
Note: The content of this series should not be taken as advice for edible or medicinal uses of specific species. We do not advise consuming the species discussed. Incorrect identification of species and incorrect preparations can be toxic and sometimes deadly. Foraging should be done only with adequate education, instruction, and caution. If you are interested in foraging it is highly advised for safety (and to gain experience) that you should take a course with an expert if you would like to learn more.