The Joys of Plant and Natural Medicine
When I was about 12, my family moved into a new house. Exploring the backyard, I found an interesting smelling plant with green spikes shooting up.
Whatever possessed me to break some off and taste it I don’t know, but I had discovered chives growing in the yard. That wonderful taste started me on an incredible journey of herbalism that continues to this day.
I have discovered plants to be a fascinating source of healing through their scent, beauty, taste and chemical structure. I didn’t know when I was 12 that chives contain vitamins A, C, thiamine and niacin and are rich in minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. Nor that chives have a long history as a cold, flu and lung congestion remedy and were thought to originate in Siberia and spread from there into America. Or that they were also considered an aphrodisiac, and that the Siberians offered chives to Alexander the Great as he was approaching their country as it was the only treasure they had.
The plant world contains thousands of such plants and stories. The ancient world up through the mid 1900’s seemed to have a relationship with the plant world around them that is missing today. When I look at the bounty around me and its use to mankind, I realize the symbiotic relationship plants and people have. And of course, many of our most common pharmaceuticals have been derived from the chemicals in plants including morphine and codeine from the opium poppy, aspirin from meadowsweet and digitalis from foxglove.
I spent several years as a volunteer in the herb garden at Old Sturbridge Village, a magnificent collection of over 400 herbs displayed in a demonstration garden that contains the household, culinary and medicinal herbs used in early America. I learned how to improve on my own garden through working there as well as experiencing all the uses herbs once had in everyday life. I loved showing children how to lather up suds from the soapwort, delighted in the wonderful smell of the heirloom roses with their beautiful large rosehips in the fall, which are full of vitamin C and make a delicious tea or jam, and luxuriated in the heady smell of thyme with all its antiseptic and antiviral properties while weeding the knot garden.
Working with plants is like working with people. They all have their own personalities and characteristics, some of which I’ve learned the hard way. One of my favorite herbs, lemon verbena, grows into a tree form with woody stems and branches and there is a large mature specimen at the Village. Lemon verbena is a wonderful addition to herbal teas for its strong clean lemon taste. It is also anti-bacterial, helping with colds, sinus congestion and indigestion. Native to South America, it was brought to Europe by the Spanish and was named Herb Louisa for the wife of King Charles IV of Spain. In Victorian days, it was stylish to place a few leaves in finger bowls. In my first attempt at growing it, I brought the plant inside in the winter, as I knew it was a tender perennial and wouldn’t survive outdoors all winter. After a month or so all the leaves fell off, leaving a small stick form. Discouraged that I had killed the plant, I discarded it only to later learn that lemon verbena is deciduous and that it will almost always drop all its leaves in winter. So the next year I faithfully cared for my pot of sticks over the winter, and sure enough, come March, didn’t new leaves and branches start breaking out all over and a beautiful plant developed!
As an herbalist, I encourage people to re-establish their relationship with plants and the natural world and to look at healing in a holistic manner by addressing the entire body and a problem’s root causes rather than our inclination to pop a pill to mask a symptom. This is difficult in our society and we have not been trained to think that way. But the world is changing and I find people integrating herbs and natural medicines back into their lives, where they once resided. So plant some herbs, cook with them, make teas with them, smell them and just enjoy them. You’ll be pleasantly surprised (and yes, I still love chives)!
Linda Russell is an herbalist whose formal herbal training and certification was completed with Rosemary Gladstar at Sage Mountain in Vermont, Martha’s Herbary in Connecticut and aromatherapy studies through Aroma Studios in New York.
Find New England herbalists in the Spirit of Change online directory.