With spring already here and Earth Day soon approaching, creating your own backyard botanical sanctuary is a beautiful way to honor the Earth, the land under our feet, the plants and the people who love plants. Though there are so many ways to build a better world—some of which seem impossibly difficult at times—creating botanical sanctuaries can be joyful, inspiring, and even revolutionary.
By becoming stewards of the Earth and creating living sanctuaries, we build repositories of well-being not only for humans and plants, but for all life forms. And that helps to change the world…plant by plant, tree by tree, bird by bird, sanctuary by sanctuary. I’ll not fool you by saying it’s ‘easy work’ because one has to be willing to dig deep, weed, amend, dig some more, and then endlessly tend, but it is happy and utterly rewarding work that feeds the heart and soul and keeps one healthy and fit.
What exactly is a botanical sanctuary?
What makes a botanical sanctuary different than any garden or backyard space? Sanctuary is defined as a place of refuge, of protection and safety, and a place where one can feel at peace. It is is also defined as holy or sacred space. A botanical sanctuary is created as a haven and refuge for plants, native species in particular. Intention and purpose is what makes it different than any other backyard space; a botanical sanctuary is created with the intention of providing a welcoming refuge and haven for plants to thrive. And wherever plants thrive, all other life forms thrive, including humans.
When we think of botanical sanctuaries, one often envisions large tracts of land, generally owned by a non-profit, private land trust, or government agency, not something that we as individuals can create. But a botanical sanctuary has little to do with size or ownership, and much more to do with relationship and intention. It is about good stewardship practices, a relationship that takes into account the natural resources of the land and its native habitats and inhabitants; it is about restoring the sacred relationship between people and land.
Even a small manicured lawn in a suburban or urban area can be restored as sanctuary by simple intent—and a lot of hard work!—as the area is transformed into a native garden that supports ‘at risk native medicinals’, wildflowers and other native species. I’ve seen this occur several times by United Plant Savers members who created botanical sanctuaries in downtown areas, city neighborhoods, and schoolyards as well as on farms and country acreage.
This has been a big part of the vision and work of United Plant Savers. Founded in 1994, United Plant Saver’s (UpS) mission is to “protect native medicinal plants and their habitats while ensuring renewable populations for use by future generations to come.” Soon after its founding, UpS began its Sanctuary Network project encouraging its members to create botanical sanctuaries on their own land. A list of resources including a detailed Botanical Sanctuary Workbook was provided to members to help get them started. This informative guidebook is available free of charge.
Imagine a network of sanctuaries crisscrossing the country, a botanical quilt that supports the diversity of native plants and other wild creatures. There are over 214 UpS Botanical Sanctuaries stretching from shore to shore in North America. These botanical sanctuaries combined with all the other ‘sacred lands’ (parks, land trusts, forests, meadows and wildland) provide nesting grounds for wild birds and animals that rely on native species for feed and shelter. They provide resting stops for migrating butterflies and other native pollinators and are home to frogs, snakes and an assortment of wild creatures that thrive on the diversity that sanctuaries provide. Sanctuaries also become places where people come to rest, renew, and to learn about wild plants, even if it’s as simple as a walk through a garden to identify medicinal herbs or native species.
At the heart of United Plant Saver’s work is the UpS Botanical Sanctuary, a 370-acre farm located in the Appalachian Foothills of Southeastern Ohio. Thanks to optimal soil conditions and unique topography, the Sanctuary is a refuge for wild medicinal plants which occur in abundance throughout the property. To date over 500 species of plants, over 120 species of trees and over 200 species of fungi have been identified. Over 5 miles of foot trails allow visitors access to learn about and see firsthand these herbs and trees flourishing in their natural environment. Half of the UpS “Species At Risk” native medicinal plants are thriving in abundance on this land.
The Sanctuary also offers several acres of restored prairie, reclaimed strip-mine land, ponds and fields to provide visitors the opportunity to see several ecosystems. The UpS Botanical Sanctuary is a living model for protecting diversity, and ensuring that the rich traditions of North American and Euro-American folk medicine continue to thrive. The Sanctuary is open for visitors and is also available for groups and events. (Learn more about another place very close to my heart, Sage Mountain Botanical Sanctuary, here.)
The Practical Side of A Botanical Sanctuary
Once you decide to establish your own botanical sanctuary, what practical steps can you take to help it grow and flourish, and be of service? Focus your work in these four areas: identification, restoration, preservation, and education.
- Learn to identify plants. Before this century, herbalists were also botanists. Begin by identifying as many plant species on the land as possible.
- Learn where plants come from and where they are going. Pay special attention to whether a plant is a native plant to your area, an ornamental from some exotic place, or a weedy species.
- Plant native species. Identify as many plants and trees that originally came from your ecosystem as possible. The more you learn about the ecosystem where you live, the better able you will be to help the land regenerate. In the processes, you will be renewed and regenerated.
- Preserve and protect the land. Join the UpS Sanctuary Network and be your own sanctuary manager. In today’s world, the land needs a champion, a steward, and a manager to reduce interference, to bring natives back to the land, and allow the intelligence of nature to work her magic.
- Allow your sanctuary to become the educational center it naturally is. Teaching and learning about the land is a lifetime study. Within every community you’ll find knowledgeable people who are often willing to share. Invite them to your land. And always be willing to share with others what you have learned about land management, wild plants, and the importance of biodiversity.
A favorite song taught to me by a very dear friend and shamanic healer, Maria Elena Martinez, is called ‘The Sanctuary’. We often sang it at conferences and classes to open and close the circles. The words are simple, but when sung together with many voices harmonizing, it is very moving:
Earth, make me a sanctuary,
Pure and holy, tried and true,
And in thanksgiving
I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.