Michael Tierra and the Roots of Planetary Herb Products
Dec. 14, 2005
Categories of time and place don’t seem to apply to Dr. Michael Tierra, the renowned herbalist, clinician, educator, and author who is the primary formulator of Planetary Herbals products. At ease in modern science and ancient herb lore, post-modern arts and 19th century classicism, Asian philosophy and digital communications, he seems a person without boundaries; as adept at teaching students about the uses for the ashwaganda or rosehip plants that grow in his back yard as he is studying the most current research in pharmaceutical knowledge, or lecturing in China, or performing a complex Rachmaninoff composition.
And interestingly, that personal eclecticism is reflected in his herbal formulations: they defy place and time, taking the best of worldwide botanicals and using them with the guidance of Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Native American herbalism, European folk traditions, and modern scientific knowledge. As a founder of Planetary Herbals, his ideals of the oneness of humankind and the shared resources of the planet–the herbal and botanical gifts of nature as well as the combined wisdom of its peoples–are the basis for the company’s name. His formulations use herbs from global sources; he combines worldwide health philosophies that have been handed down for millennia with the best of modern research.
With his expertise of herbal wisdom from all over the world, Tierra points out the fascinating similarities of the philosophies. ‘Every plant has an effect either positively or negatively which coincides with the nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. Instead of five elements like the Ayurvedic and TCM systems, the Native Americans used the four directions and the medicine wheel’”plants were classified according to the medicine wheel,’ he says. Many of the basic principles and ideas about health are shared globally; from completely independent developments have come strikingly similar ideas.
‘Planetary draws from the roots of these traditional systems and integrates this wisdom. Although there are similarities, it’s a very difficult process and most companies do not do this, it is hard enough to understand one system let alone developing synergistic formulas from multiple systems,’ he adds.
Through his own fascinations and study, Tierra was at the forefront of bringing knowledge of Ayurvedic principles to American herbalism; he has helped heal thousands in his clinic in California; he translated Chinese traditional medicine for North American audiences; his own research into the properties of Echinacea reintroduced that plant to health care; his books on herbalism’”nine so far’”have enlightened thousands, and his students have built upon his teachings and have become a vast and growing legion of progressive alternative health care providers, carrying on the philosophies and knowledge of Tierra’s training.
Tierra’s fascinating background is reflected in Planetary Herbals and its development as a company and a product line.
Seeds are Planted
Tierra is a pioneer, one of a handful of people whose fascination with herbal properties ushered in a renaissance of herbalism in the latter part of the 1960s. With the advent of pharmaceuticals and powerful drugs in the 20th century, particularly after WWII, much American herbal knowledge was lost. It wasn’t until the counter-culture movements of the 1960s that Americans rebelled against the medical and pharmaceutical industries; they sought to relearn ancient wisdom with a goal of self’“healing from natural resources. Tierra was at the forefront of what became a huge movement in health consciousness.
But revolutionizing American perspectives about health wasn’t Tierra’s original plan. He was a city kid from a lively Italian family with a love of music; he grew up in Los Angeles and became a classically trained pianist. Later, he became involved in the avant-garde music scene of the early 1960s. After his band broke up in the mid-60s, he decided to try commune life, first settling near Mt. Shasta, then Dunsmuir in Northern California. Later, he and a group of kindred spirits bought some property in the Klamath Mountains near the California-Oregon border. Their goal was to become self-sustaining, living a life ‘back to the land’ and divorced from modern society. Their experimental community, Black Bear Ranch, still exists.
‘It was like a fantasy land for me,’ says Tierra. ‘Something about the forest grabbed my fascination. I would bring back bundles of plants that I found in the woods and try to identify them. The plants were speaking to me in a very powerful way, but I had no idea of their purposes.’
Germination of ideas
As the community sought to be self-sustaining, learning about the plants’”both as food and as medicine’”became Tierra’s passion. ‘Eventually I began to learn that there were uses for the various plants. We were developing a completely alternative community, delivering our own babies and creating our own medicine.’ Tierra began studying the few herbal books available then, Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss, and The Herbalist by Myer Clossan. ‘We began developing our own herbal medicine cabinet,’ he says.
Up until the depression era in the 1930s, many herbal pharmacies existed in the U.S. With the advent of powerful drugs, those stores, except for rare ethnic shops in a few cities, were gone by mid-century. On a trip to San Francisco, Tierra met ‘Nathan,’ the owner of Nature’s Herbs, one of the last herbal pharmacies in North America. Nathan wasn’t hip or counter-culture, he was an old-time herbalist whose business focused on the needs of the ethnic peoples who immigrated to San Francisco who still desired Old World treatments and remedies. Nathan was at first put off by strange hippies like Tierra who wanted to know so much about plants. But as time went by, he became willing then eager to share his knowledge. He saw their genuine interest.
At the same time, Tierra became acquainted with Native Americans in the Klamath region, the Karok and Yurok people who had lived there for centuries. ‘They introduced me to wild celery, angelica, princess pine, and grape root,’ he says. He sought out other herbal practitioners and shared knowledge and tips.
Tierra’s community began the development of their own medicinal protocol, experimenting on themselves with plants like goldenseal, which he says gave mixed results. The greatest challenges in the community were infections, and Tierra sought to find an alternative to modern antibiotics. In severe cases, they had no choice but to rely on modern drugs. Once, looking through Jethro Kloss’s book, Tierra saw that about 40 plants were listed for infections’”with limited funds and access, which ones should be tried? On his next trip to San Francisco to Nature’s Herbs, he tried to purchase ‘the one with the strangest name.’ The infection herb with the strangest name happened to be a Native American plant called Echinacea, a plant no one had bought from Nathan’s store in years and no one else had even heard of. Nathan rummaged in his basement and found a dusty old jar of it; there were only about eight ounces of old, powdery Echinacea root left in the store, but he sold what he had to Tierra.
No one knew the best way to take Echinacea, but because the quantity they had was so small, Tierra thought they should take small amounts frequently, so their supply would last longer. The results were startling’”the old, powdery, leftover roots worked wonderfully. ‘It cured 95 percent of every infection that occurred at the Ranch,’ he says. As Tierra spread the word about Echinacea, his intuitive choice and the protocol he developed simply because there was so little available, was literally the beginning of widespread Echinacea use in the United States.
Tierra still uses Echinacea for infections but does not agree with the current popularity of it as an herb for colds and flu. ‘Echinacea was used in Germany since the 1930s for colds, but it is not as effective as other plants. However, it is very effective against infections, much more effective than any Chinese or Ayurvedic herb I know.’ Tierra works tirelessly to share with the public the proper use of Echinacea.
The Black Bear ranch became widely known as an alternative healing community. ‘All of our work was done in an effort to take care of ourselves with natural medicine,’ says Tierra. Word about the community spread and influenced others across the country. ‘The midwifery movement was born there and two of our people studied acupuncture and brought those skills.’
Tierra’s fascination with herbs and natural health grew as he compiled more information. He sought further knowledge and studied acupuncture in San Francisco while also trying to study traditional Chinese herbs. One teacher agreed to teach him at $1 per herb, reading out of a Chinese book. Tierra tried learning ten herbs a week, $10 per visit, but soon became frustrated, because he did not have the ability to cross-reference other materials’”Latin names were not available’”and there was little specific knowledge for how to use the herbs. Meanwhile, an herbalist at another Chinatown herb company befriended him and taught him about individual herbs and their uses.
He began gathering information from widely diffuse sources. He met and later studied with an Ayurvedic scholar, Baba Hari Das, whom Tierra credits with introducing Ayurveda to the U.S. Lacking substantive resources from books in English, Tierra traveled widely, studying with an herbalist in British Columbia, Ayurveda practitioners in India, doctors in China. He met Dr. John Christopher and learned about his approach to health, which emphasized cleansing and detoxification, and he greatly appreciated the tonics Dr. Christopher developed. As Tierra’s expertise grew, he met others with the same interests. After years’”even decades’”of solitary study and private practice, a worldwide community of herbal practitioners and scholars were finding each other and sharing knowledge and resources.
Sprouting leaves and flowers
Societal acceptance of nontraditional forms of health care flourished in the 1970s, and later, the State of California and other states began to allow the licensing and formal practice of acupuncture. Although people have always sought complimentary forms of healing, licensing by the state enabled patients to explore alternative forms of health care knowing that the practitioners were licensed and possessed high standards of expertise. As an Oriental Medical Doctor (O.M.D.), Tierra has obtained the most advanced credentials available in Chinese medicine.
He opened a clinic in Santa Cruz, California, using his backgrounds in Chinese, Ayurvedic, and other medicinal philosophies to help his patients. His theories might seem strange to Westerners, for example his appreciation for the herbal tonics of the Chinese, are daily blends of herbs that keep people well rather than treat them when they’re ill. Or some are surprised that his prescriptions can vary season by season. ‘This is a key concept in TCM,’ he says. ‘Different body systems are affected by the changing seasons, for example, the digestive system is affected in the summertime and the lungs and urinary tract are affected in the winter. Taking herbs that support those systems during those seasons is a key to good health.’
Tierra introduced Triphala to the American health food industry. The 2,000-year-old Ayurvedic formula is a combination of three fruits; it is one of the most renowned internal cleansing formulas known in India, and thanks to Tierra and other Ayurvedic practitioners, it is gaining great popularity in the U.S., and it is highly effective when combined with complimentary herbs. On a trip to India, he brought back seeds of the potent Ayurvedic herb Ashwagandha, a highly respected tonifier. The word has spread and now Ashwagandha is being cultivated widely in the U.S. for medicinal purposes.
Tierra develops formulations for the patients at his clinic, testing and refining ancient medicinal recipes. Planetary Herbals shares many of those formulas with the world, his unique blends of worldwide components have helped thousands of people and are carried in health food stores nationwide. Planetary was the first American company, for example, to offer Triphala in the U.S. Planetary continues to be one of the few lines of herbal products developed by practicing herbal clinicians.
In the mid-70s, many herb books were being written, but none by a practicing, herbal doctor and clinician. Tierra wrote The Way of Herbs, the first book to integrate a system of nutrition and herbal medicine based on the energetic principles of hot and cold, yin and yang, and other global concepts. It is the best selling herbal book of all time and the most significant and influential herbal book of the latter 20th century. It is still considered a standard text for herbologists. Additionally, Tierra has written The Way of Chinese Herbs, Planetary Herbology, Chinese Traditional Herbal Medicine, Treating Cancer with Herbs: an Integrative Approach, Chinese Planetary Herbal Diagnosis, and numerous others. He is also the editor of American Herbalism: Essays on Herbs and Herbalism by Members of the American Herbalists Guild.
He teaches and lectures widely, and is the founder of East-West School of Herbal Medicine in Santa Cruz, CA, one of the most highly regarded residency and distance-learning herbal programs in the United States. He has taught hundreds of herbalists, and his students today number among the leading herbalists in the country.
He co-founded the American Herbalists Guild, a body of herbalists who have set best practices models for high standards in the profession. The guild is committed to the evolution of the profession.
‘The basis for health and healing is balance and harmony,’ he says. ‘Disease is an attempt to return to balance. When things get way out of kilter, then disease can be cataclysmic in terms of the suffering that it inflicts as a way of reestablishing harmony and balance.’ His practice and that of most herbalists, is one of treating underlying conditions rather than symptoms. ‘Herbs are not as effective as drugs for treating symptoms because they are weaker. The drugs are stronger and there is stronger relief from the symptoms but there are side effects.’ He continues, ‘If you choose the right herb with its secondary properties being harmonious with a person’s condition, it is ultimately much more effective than a drug because it restores harmony and balance.’
Tierra says, ‘One of our challenges moving forward is how to translate how to use herbs so that people in mainstream medicine can understand it. If you limit it to the metaphorical language of TCM or Ayurveda, it sounds like double talk to them. The thing that I think that everybody can start with is that herbs work; that is where western physiology and traditional medicine absolutely agree.’