Herbs, the Last Frontier

Apprentice herbalists examining leaves. Photo: Lucy Walker.

Do you have small dusty bottles of dried herbs in your kitchen dating from the Bush Administration? While our culinary abilities have grown, some of us still use herbs as our parents or grandparents did. Not only are we missing out on flavor, but on medicinal benefits these easy to grow plants have when used internally and topically (on the skin). Herbs are the last frontier in self-care and plenty of local talent is available to help you get started.

What is an herb? The answer depends on who you ask, but the Herb Society of America defines it broadly, saying that, “Herbs are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties, and coloring materials (dyes)." See: http://herbsociety.org/.

Herbs as Medicine?

You have reservations. Eating a salad of fresh sorrel and dandelion greens is one thing, but you may be nervous or feel a little foolish cooking up your own herbal medicine. Says Maia Toll of www.herbiary.com: “I have come to realize that this [fear of herbal medicine]…is a little deeper than the mere fear of kitchen chemistry gone awry. This is a cultural fear. We don’t take care of ourselves, doctors do. We don’t make our own medicine, we buy it. Our kitchen is not hygienic enough for making medicine. There is a lot of space between optimal wellness and health that has deteriorated to the point of needing medical intervention, and that is the space we need to reclaim.”

Says Molly Meehan, local herbalist and founding director of Centro Ashe (www.centroashe.org): “Herbalists have lagged behind the food movement, and marketers in the $8 billion a year herb industry have sold us on the benefits of certain rare plants over other more common, local ones. Herbs like Golden Seal and Wild Yam are good examples, where overharvesting has resulted in threatening these natural resources here and in other countries.”

Molly supports people growing and learning about herbs right where they live. Her passion goes beyond knowing that growing and making various herbal products is easy, effective, inexpensive, and fun. Her background in social justice and international affairs feeds her practice of herbalism. She sees herbs and herbalism as a four part vehicle for social change:

  1. Supporting food sovereignty (http://usfoodsovereigntyalliance.org/what-is-food-sovereignty/);
  2. Practicing environmental stewardship, wherever you live;
  3. Sustaining the local food producing community by participating in CSA’s and farmer’s markets;
  4. Contributing to race and class equity.

Meehan’s blog says it best in a recent article called, “11 Ways You Can Help Create a Thriving Local Herbal Community” (http://www.centroashe.org/blog/10-ways-you-can-help-create-a-thriving-local-herbal-community. Just about every local source for herbs, herbal products, and herbalist practitioners is listed and linked in this piece.

Culinary Herbs Working Overtime

Let’s use the familiar garden herb basil as an example of a culinary plant with medicinal properties. We can make pesto with basil, nuts, oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese. We like layering whole basil leaves on fresh slices of tomato with fresh mozzarella.

But basil is also known as an anti-depressant. It has antiseptic properties too. Try rubbing fresh crushed leaves on insect bites or stings to relieve itching. Inhale the leaves in a steamy bowl of hot water as a decongestant for colds.

There are many more uses of basil that will change how you view that beautiful garden plant. Try looking up the medicinal qualities of other common culinary herbs like rosemary and parsley, or even the ubiquitous annual marigold, an antibacterial and antifungal and can relieve eczema and sunburn. You’ll be surprised at the medicine cabinet you may already have in your yard or balcony garden.

Herbs for Fun

Adults and kids can learn about herbs by doing craft projects. Workshops abound, as well as online resources. If we want to pass on the love of plants and curiosity about their many qualities to children, we’d better make it fun.

You can make bath sachets, incense, soap, natural dyes, leaf and flower collages, musical instruments, masks, and delicious teas from readily available, inexpensive herbs. Centro Ashe’s Pleasure Medicine series (http://www.centroashe.org/pleasure-medicine-series.html) presents many of these activities.

The next workshop, on Sept. 12, will be devoted to the art of coffee roasting on an antique roaster with coffee from a Guatemalan family farm. Coffee is an herb too! Participants will share a pot-luck dinner and socialize while they learn.

2015 Chesapeake Herb Gathering

One of Molly Meehan’s greatest gifts is her ability to identify keepers of local plant knowledge of all ethnic backgrounds and create a platform for them to share what they know. The latest wave of American herbalism, says Meehan: “has been dominated by whites and neglects the traditions of people who never lost their heritage. There is amazing diversity in the DC region and the story of herbalism won’t change unless we have others tell their stories.”

And that’s exactly what will take place on Sept. 26 to 27 at the third annual Chesapeake Herb Gathering in nearby Nanjemoy, MD, at the Melwood Recreation Center. Borrowing from the Boy Scout tradition of overnight weekend events, the Gathering is a campout lasting from noon on Saturday to noon on Sunday. Admission is $85, or $60 for groups of six or more. I will be there and welcome Capitol Hill friends and gardeners to pitch their tents with me. Workshops for children are included, making this a great family event.

Here’s what you can expect: four workshops with over 20 options to choose from, including, “Growing Your own Medicine,” “Plant Walk for all Ages,” “Arurvedic Cooking: Chai and Spices,” “DIY Herbal Cheese,” “Brewing Basics,” and “Herbal support for Men.” Molly will set the stage with her opening keynote, “Community Herbalism and Social Change.” There will be vendors, on site meals, a silent auction, plus an evening campfire with “Story Seeds” storytelling. See: www.centroashe.org for full program and registration information.

If you are hesitant to rely solely on You Tube videos to begin using herbs for healing, this gathering should be just what you need to build confidence and network with local practitioner. Afterwards, you will be able to purchase fresh and dried herbs from places like Eastern Market and Yes! Market with more intention and follow through. You’ll be able to choose some herbs to grow in your own gardens based on the types of remedies you want most easily available, and you’ll learn techniques for preserving your herbs so that your new favorite teas, tinctures, infusions, and salves will be accessible year-round.

With their various colors and aromas, herbal tinctures are beautiful as well as useful. Photo: Cheryl Corson
Aroma can reveal inherent properties of herbs. Photo: Centro Ashe

Cheryl Corson is a local licensed landscape architect serving Capitol Hill and beyond since 2003. She traveled with Molly Meehan to Costa Rica last January on Centro Ashe’s annual Roots and Culture tour, further sparking her interest in herbs and herbal remedies. For garden and landscape design assistance, see: www.cherylcorson.com

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