Where your pills come from
Before they are dried, powdered, pressed, encapsulated, or poured into dark bottles, herbs grow, offering beauty to eye and mind. Here, one grower describes his experience with medicinal plants.
It's Spring now, but I look forward to June 22—there’s no feeling quite like that of basking in the garden on the summer solstice, after most of the season’s plantings have been completed. My feeling of calm euphoria, stemming from the presence of a diverse plant community that has so much to offer and teach us, is stronger than the sense of accomplishment I feel after a long spring of demanding labor.
The garden I refer to is Roots N’ Herbs Farm, known formally as the Sustainable Education and Resource Center, a nonprofit endeavor devoted to exploring sustainable agriculture and plant diversity in our bioregion. Established in 1995, the farm is located thirty miles north of Taos, New Mexico, in a pristine environment nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; it sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet. Slightly more than one acre is intensively cultivated using organic methods, and it produces more than 100 varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs, vegetables, and flowers. It has been rumored, though not substantiated, that our farm, with its scale and diversity, may be the only one of its kind in the United States at such an elevation.
The garden’s diversity reflects that of its three founders, of which I am one. We brought an eclectic blend of experience with us, including seed-saving, herbalism, and permaculture (ecological farming). Supported by the knowledge and guidance of local master gardeners, we set out to create a garden where form and function were indistinguishable.
One of the principle aims of permaculture is to try to mimic the abundance, diversity, and self-sufficiency of nature. Many plants that grow side by side in the wild do so for a variety of compelling reasons. One herb may offer another much-needed shade, protection from wind and predators, or fertilizer in the form of decaying plant matter.
Conversely, some plants can detract from the ability of others to thrive. So one of the goals of permaculture is to establish a diverse, thriving, and, most of all, balanced ecosystem that becomes more abundant and self-maintaining as time goes by. In putting this philosophy into practice, we found that the perennial and self-seeding annual plants, which reappear in the garden faithfully year in and year out, became the foundation of the garden. Aside from being intentionally planted as part of our permaculture, all of our perennial and self-seeding annuals have medicinal qualities and applications.
However, I should say that in some ways it seems awkward for me to distinguish or classify certain plants as medicinal. For the most part, I believe that almost all plants, including organically grown food crops, are medicinal. It is well-documented that the simplest and most effective medicine in our lives comes from what we eat and drink on a daily basis. If, every day, we eat a spectrum of organically grown foods and herbs (all culinary herbs have a remarkable tradition of use as effective medicinals) and drink tea made from locally grown herbs, in the long run, this diet probably provides the most gentle and safest preventive medicine in the world.
This disclaimer aside, Roots N’ Herbs does grow more than fifty varieties of plants that we classify and use as medicinal herbs. In combination with sustainable plants that are wildcrafted from our backyard, we produce a line of herbal products, including salves, tinctures, and oils, which are made almost exclusively from fresh plant material. These are made in small batches and sold mainly locally, although we maintain accounts as far away as Hawaii.
In general, we plant and grow our medicinal herbs throughout the garden, so by midsummer it’s a kaleidoscope of flowering plants. At first glance, one may wonder whether there’s a method to this colorful madness; however, the apparent healthfulness of the plants may be some indication that, indeed, there is. The reality of our system for growing herbs is relatively simple and can be broken down into two scenarios.
The first scenario is created by the plants in our somewhat strictly medicinal garden. This garden comprises about one-eighth of an acre and is brimming with hardy, perennial medicinal herbs. For three years now, we have been faithfully searching out live roots from other gardeners and from nurseries, as well as conducting ongoing experiments—germinating seeds of a wide variety of plants from similar climatic regions all over the world. We have amended our soil for this garden with a plenitude of nitrogen-rich organic matter, including well-composted sheep manure and homemade compost.
Though we learn much by trial and error, the ongoing evolution of this garden has been stunning. In some cases, we have grouped plant families together in beds; in others, one species may have its own domain. The mint family (Labiateae) grows contentedly along the irrigation channel that meanders around the border of the medicinal garden. Several varieties of peppermint and spearmint fan out among catnip, lemon balm, and lavender, to name a few. Just beyond these beds and across a bridge, representatives of the Apiaceae family come into view. Angelica and parsley are obviously content with their relatively close proximity to each other. Continued exploration of this garden reveals many varieties of other well-known, time-tested healers, such as echinacea, St.-John’s-wort, mugwort, yarrow, feverfew, burdock, wormwood, clary sage, self-heal, and a glorious host of others too numerous to name. Aside from the plants’ usefulness as medicine, the garden is always the shining star in the spring and early summer when, unlike many of our annual vegetables struggling to become established, these hardy plants hardly notice the lingering cold and become prolific early on.
The second scenario is created by the intermingling of our medicinal plants throughout the vegetables and other not-strictly medicinal members of our garden.
When we originally designed the garden, we began to sow all the borders of the vegetable beds with a host of differ- ent plants. Calendula, borage, comfrey, chamomile, lovage, and edible chrysanthemum were planted or transplanted to varying degrees and densities throughout. The brilliant colors of the calendula, chrysanthemum, and chamomile combinations are said to repel insects, while the fertilizer offered by borage and lovage is widely reputed to enhance the health and flavor of vegetables growing nearby. Comfrey in and of itself is invaluable, an institution in the garden. Chopped comfrey leaves can be soaked with manure, brewed, mixed with water, and sprayed onto plants as a fertilizer and natural pesticide. Comfrey grows quite prolifically and can be cut back multiple times in a gardening season and added to compost piles, where the breakdown of its rich plant profile helps create a more complete compost.
Most U.S. climatic zones will support all of these plants quite well. They are easy to grow and may thrive in less than ideal soil conditions. All will reseed or overwinter to return in the spring. As the years go by, many of these plants will attempt to extend their domain.
While we still wonder at the relative ease and grace of making highly effective medicine from plants, most bioregions offer almost completely natural pharmacies. Rob Hawley, an herbalist based in Taos, says that herbalists and growers can have an “incredible sense of presence” in the community when they work with local plant resources. He adds that one of an herbalist’s strongest assets is the ability to explore and create bioregional herbal remedies. Before there were doctors or chemical drugs, Hawley says, people healed themselves almost exclusively with local plant medicines.
There are as many ways to design and lay out a garden as there are people, and certainly the same goes for creating herbal products. But when I think of the solstice, the summer rain clouds hovering over the mesa, and the surrounding garden, I am reminded that the best healing for me comes from just being with the plants.
Jerry Schwartz is a freelance writer and cofounder of the Roots N’ Herbs Farm near Taos, New Mexico. The Sustainable Education and Resource Center has a website: www.laplaza.org/comm/mh/.
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