A Quest for Sustainable Wildcrafted Herbs in the Himalayas
The fresh, crisp mountain air filled my lungs as I paused for a moment to catch my breath and take in the expansive vista of the Himalayas. Slightly above tree line, I had just emerged from a thick forest of oak and hemlock that felt surprising familiar, closely resembling the mountain landscapes of my own beloved backyard in Southern Oregon.
The morning sun was bright and intense, despite the chill in the air. It illuminated the snowcapped peaks in the distance and streamed across the valleys, exaggerating the dramatic beauty that surrounded me and my fellow hikers in all directions.
Kevin Casey, Banyan's founder and CEO, on the trail in Nepal
Well into the second day of an intense and physically challenging trek, I was accompanied by my good friend and Banyan’s CEO Kevin Casey, International Sourcing Manager Anuj Thakkar, and a few members of a local sherpa family.
Thanks to their knowledge of the local Nepalese mountains, as well as their work as wild herb collectors in the region, the family had agreed to be our guides for our current journey.
Both herbs are highly prized in Ayurveda but require very specific growing conditions to thrive. Specifically, they need the elevation, climate, environment, and weather patterns that exist in their mountainous Himalayan home.
Due to the high demand for these herbs as Ayurveda has grown in popularity, both have faced threats from overharvesting and the stark potential of extinction. Having chosen not to carry these herbs for this reason, we have been on the hunt for a truly ethical and sustainable source.
This search is what brought us all the way across the world to Nepal to learn more about the harvesting practices of these local collectors and investigate a potential sourcing partnership.
Himalayan mountain view from the upper Karnataka River range
We had spent the last two days waking with the sun, hiking over 12 hours a day, gaining and dropping over 2,000 feet in elevation multiple times, and navigating over 20 turbulent river crossings as we wove our way along an upper tributary of the Karnali river.
As I stood gazing across the landscape, soaking it all in, I felt physically exhausted but vitally alive, immensely at peace in the quiet expanse of remote mountains and vibrant blue sky.
We had been hiking since early morning, fueled by a breakfast of short grain red rice and wild thyme tea, both local to the region and lovingly prepared for us over an open fire by our guides. Aside from the occasional fern frond or wild rhubarb found along the trail, our next and only other meal wouldn’t come until late evening.
Tyler and Kevin with local wild herb collectors
As we continued on our way along the increasingly narrow trail towards the snow-covered peaks above, I marveled at the incredible agility of our guides. Despite the three of us being in good shape, it was a constant struggle to keep up with their surefooted pace as they navigated the curves and contours of the mountain paths.
Eventually, the narrow trail began to peter out altogether, turning from solid walkable terrain into steep and rocky boulder fields. Kevin, Anuj, and I scrambled after our guides as they moved nimbly across the unstable rocks and stones, focusing intently to keep from losing our footing.
Kutki (Neopicrorhiza scrophulariiflora)
Despite our fatigue, we were infused with the thrill of adventure and the feeling of sweet success. We watched eagerly as the experienced sherpa collectors gently dug up a few of the plants and then gratefully held out our hands as they passed the plants to us.
Smelling the roots, tasting the leaves, and feeling the fresh cool soil against my palms, I was filled with humility and reverence for these elusive plants, overcome by a palpable sense of what precious and powerful beings they truly are.
I felt a deep sense of honor to be introduced to these plants in person by the local people, and graced with the knowledge of their healing properties that have been passed down from ancient Ayurvedic herbalists over thousands of years.
Kutki plant in flower
After spending some time on the mountain, discussing the plants and relishing the intensity of the elements at play around us, we made our way back downhill and towards the direction of home.
The path to long-term sustainability is still uncertain and this adventure was just one small step in establishing the way forward. But a hopeful seed has been planted when it comes to offering kutki and jatamansi to our customers in the future. And with that seed, a renewed commitment to move with utmost reverence and care as we navigate the journey.