I first met Jeff and Melanie Carpenter, founders of Zack Woods Herb Farm, years ago when I was an apprentice at Sage Mountain and came to know them much better when we visited their farm to get footage for Numen (that’s their root washing machine and Jeff is the one at the end of the film harvesting Echinacea). I love their farm, their vision, and especially love their dried herbs! I’m thrilled to include Jeff’s comments here from a talk he recently gave in Montpelier, VT organized by Transition Town Montpelier.
As people are losing confidence in our modern health care system, we as herbalists, herbal product producers and herb farmers are participating in what many refer to as the “herbal renaissance”. The industrial revolution taught us to think of food and medicine in terms of efficiency and convenience first. This gave rise to the “silver bullet approach” which is to take a pill that will ease or mask the symptoms of the illness or injury while paying little attention to the underlying factors causing these health challenges. If we get a headache, take some Ibuprofen to make it go away but never mind what is causing the headache in the first place as long as we can’t feel it.
I’m not downplaying the importance of allopathic medicine because it certainly has a critical role to play in saving lives, preventing and curing diseases and easing suffering but there can be a more preventative and integrative approach and this is what people are really starting to figure out. If we can take care of our bodies by eating healthy whole foods, making wise dietary choices, exercising, and leading healthy lifestyles we can build our defenses to many of the health issues that we face.
When our bodies become compromised by illness, disease or injury we can approach many of these challenges by turning to nature’s apothecary because there is a virtual“medicine cabinet” right in our own backyard or our neighbor’s fields and woods.
I’m going to discuss 10 primary herbs that we can either easily grow from seed, and save our own seeds from each year, or easily find and wild harvest from the woods and fields around our homes. It is important to consult with a good plant identification book or bring along a knowledgeable plant geek to ensure proper botanical identification before wild harvesting. It is also important to remember that when wild harvesting plants, to do so in a sustainable manner to ensure that your green friends will still be there the next time you go seek their gifts. United Plant Savers is a great resource for wild harvesting ethics, information and guidelines.
An Indian proverb says, “Garlic is as good as ten mothers.” And Hippocrates famously said “let your food be your medicine and let your medicine be your food.” Garlic is about as good an example of this philosophy as there is. This is one of the oldest cultivated plants; it is mentioned in texts as far back as 4000 years BC and is said to have originated in the Hindu Kush mountainous region of Pakistan.
Medicinally, Garlic is incredibly useful. The Roman philosopher Pliny listed 61 Garlic remedies ranging from coughs to madness to wild animal bites to improving low libido and also mentions some possible side effects including thirst, odor and flatulence.
Its uses include but are not limited to:
- lowering blood pressure;
- lowering LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and raising HDL (the good kind);
- cleansing toxins from the liver and other organs;
- a strong anti viral as well as an anti bacterial;
- a vermifuge (helps get rid of internal parasites);
- an insect repellent, vampire repellent and sometimes people repellent which can come in handy.
- Best of all is that this “stinking rose” tastes divine.
Garlic is relatively easy to grow. Start out with good seed stock (there are several varieties and species available to choose from) and plant in the fall before the ground freezes in fertile, well-drained soil in full sun. The Garlic will overwinter and emerge the following spring. Keep it well weeded, watered and nourished and harvest it around late July or early August when the tops have died back about 75%. Immediately after harvest, Garlic needs to be cured slowly for two to three weeks in a shaded, dry, well ventilated area until the tops (greens) are completely dry at which point the tops and rootlets should be removed and any soil brushed off the bulbs taking caution not to remove the paper-like skins. Garlic can store for up to a year in a cool, dark, dry area. Save your largest bulbs for seed for next year’s crop. Each individual clove planted pointed end up in the fall becomes next years full head of Garlic. There are lots of resources available that give greater details on growing, storing, and eating Garlic.
Stinging Nettles Urtica dioica Perennial
Although much maligned for it’s tendency to grow vigorously where we love to run bare footed while blissfully unaware then stinging us when we least expect it, this herbaceous perennial is a virtual panacea. Another perfect example of food as medicine, this herb is very popular in herbal supplements and should in my opinion be a part of every herbal protocol. But how many of us think of Nettles in terms of food? I do, and if you haven’t tried steamed or sautéed Nettles, you don’t know what your missing. The sting is transported through cystolith hairs on the surface of the leaves via formic acid (the same stuff red ants sting with) and is completely neutralized by cooking or dehydrating the leaves. Nettles should be harvested and consumed before they start going to seed, which is when the levels of silica elevate to the point of rendering the leaves very rough and tough.
Nettles are a perfect example of what are called “tonic herbs.” The word tonic means that it tones or tonifies the body. This plant has more minerals and vitamins than any vegetable with the possible exception of sweet potato and is rich with chlorophyll which the human body just craves. Some of the constituents that have been isolated in Stinging Nettle include but are not limited to Vitamins A, C, D, E, F, K, P including B complexes; nettle contains up to 20% protein by volume in it’s fresh form and up to a whopping 40% when it is dried. Minerals include thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, selenium, zinc, Iron, and Magnesium.
Nettles also make an incredible forage plant for livestock. Our chickens here on the farm literally brawl to establish pecking order for the big fresh leaves and the hogs go wild for it.
Nettles are fairly common in the wild especially around old barnyards and are easy to start from seed, root divisions or herbaceous cuttings. They thrive in rich, moist soil in the full sun or partial shade. Some consider Nettles to be invasive but I prefer the term aggressive because they love to jump around the garden but are easy to weed out when they are young. Many cuttings can be harvested throughout the growing season before they run to seed. Harvest with our without gloves depending on how intimate and itchy you want to get with your feisty green friend. Cook fresh, juice, or dehydrate them on screens or in bundles in a dark, well-ventilated, dry room until they snap, crackle and pop. Refrigerate or freeze fresh Nettles and store dried Nettles in an airtight container in a cool dark area for making teas or extracts later. Seeds are easy to harvest when they mature and “shatter” or are released from the mother plants. The plants also tend to self-sow vigorously. There are many resources available which give much more information on growing and using Nettles for food and medicine.
Elder Sambucus Nigra or Canadensis Perennial
In my opinion, Elderberry is the herb supreme for cold and flu season in Vermont. The blossoms, which bloom in early July in Vermont, are an excellent diaphoretic (makes you sweat) for helping to break fevers and ease aches and pains while also exhibiting anti-inflammatory actions and make a great tea for colds and flu.
The berries are where most of the goodness is found and they are incredibly useful in preventing and easing the symptoms of colds, flu, hay fever, nasal, respiratory and yeast infections. They are rich in Vitamins A, B and especially C. They contain a wealth of antioxidant flavonoids including Quercitin and Anthocyanin that exhibit anti viral and anti bacterial actions. They are also said to help lower cholesterol and improve eyesight. There are extensive research trials going on to study Elderberry’s role in the treatment of H1N1 that have shown amazing effectiveness.
Elderberry bushes are fairly common in Vermont, mostly found growing along streams or on the edge of fertile openings. They thrive in rich, moist, soil in the full sun or partial shade and are easiest grown either from a potted plant purchased from a local grower or from softwood or hardwood cuttings taken during the plant’s dormancy and rooted in potting soil. They can also be grown from seed saved by washing the berry pulp off the seeds and planting them in very early spring. Plants will start to flower and fruit after two to three year’s growth at which point the flowers and or berries can be harvested. We usually try to leave about 1/3 of the flowers or berries on each bush to share with the birds and deer who relish this plant’s gifts as much or more than we do. The flowers can be used fresh or dried thoroughly for tea or liquid extracts.
The berries can be used fresh which is preferable or dried or frozen for later use. We find Elderberry syrup to be the finest and tastiest vehicle for delivering Elderberry’s gifts to our bodies. There are many resources that delve into greater detail on this incredible plant and its many uses. Caution is necessary if one isn’t completely sure of the correct species due to the fact that Blue Elderberry (Black Elderberry’s cousin) can be mildly toxic. Consult with a field guide or knowledgeable plant geek to ensure proper identification.
We’ll post the rest of Jeff’s list soon!