In the Field with Herbalist Chad Cornell


A nattily attired guide: Cornell describing the virtues of the Angelica tree.

Locally shot film takes plant-lovers on illuminating ride

Our Common Roots
Filmed and Directed by Glenn Axford
100 minutes, 2012 (view trailer)
$29.95 (DVD), $5-$15 to stream online

Reviewed by SYD BAUMEL

With the soft-spoken zeal of a young David Suzuki, Winnipeg herbalist Chad Cornell takes plant medicine enthusiasts on a field trip in “Our Common Roots,” a locally (and beautifully) filmed documentary by Glenn Axford.

His long hair bound in a pony-tail, the trimly bearded, nattily attired (in a New Age kind of way) Cornell brings an impressively eclectic, holistic, even mystical (as opposed to reductionistic) outlook to the healing world of plants.

Cornell – who teaches herbalism to University of Manitoba medical students and practises at Hollow Reed Holistic on Westminster Avenue – knows his stuff. We quickly discover he can expound at length on the unique, life-preserving chemical properties of a tree’s bark and how those properties relate – as medicine – to us. And then he can turn on a dime, describing how the tree’s appearance alludes to its medicinal effects, according to the pre-modern “doctrine of signatures.”

As the film unfolds in a string of bite-sized segments, Cornell touches on many subjects against a backdrop of eye-grabbing locations: he receives a primer on the meaning of a petroform medicine wheel from a traditional aboriginal healer; he gives us pointers on how to wild-harvest plants (be mindful of the needs of others – even bears, Cornell advises; if it’s a “yang” [masculine] plant you’re looking for, best to harvest it when the season and the weather also are yang [hot, sunny]…); he marvels along with herbalist and educator Terry Willard at the panacea-like properties of the giant, heart-shaped Reishi mushroom; he ponders the unity of mind and body, as when a herb simultaneously cleanses your liver and stirs up “stored emotions.”

Cornell is in his element discussing how a plant is understood and used by multiple healing traditions, from European to native American (North and South) to East Indian (Ayurveda). Standing beside a juniper bush, he enthuses about how its feisty yang personality not only helps account for its ability to protect our bodies from germs, it even protects our “astral bodies.”

The specific qualities of plants – that most traditional of clues to their medicinal properties – are particularly meaningful to Cornell. A big, “intimidating” plant like burdock can beef up a burned out person, he tells us; a small, meek, sweet-flavoured plant like pineapple weed can tame a savage breast.

Late in the film, when Cornell’s guided tour has moved us up the food chain (and the chakra system – he’s into that, too) to plants whose effects are focused on human consciousness, he makes an observation that seems to encompass his plant-human worldview. Stroking the leaves of a holy basil plant at Sage Garden Herbs in Winnipeg, Cornell reflects: “When we look to traditions such as Ayurveda, we see that what they’re actually saying is that plants are not only capturing the vital force from the sun and nurturing us from the earth, but they actually bring a special quality to the human nervous system and the human mind that is intent on our blooming.”

If you’re drawn to that magical place where the nitty-gritty of modern, materialistic science meets the timeless intuitions of shamanism and the great empirical healing systems such as Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, Cornell is your guide. Do keep a web browser open if you’re a newbie, because this ebullient educator uses quite a few specialized terms without defining them, at least not always the first time: yang, carminative, dosha, pitta . . . You just might want to spring for the film’s written field guide, too.


2 Responses

  1. Margaret

    January 20, 2015 9:23 am

    Hi Chad,
    I am looking for a herb called Caralluma Fembriata. East Indian herb. If you can let me know where I can get it.


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