Chinese Medicinal Herbs in a Down-Home Garden

Be inspired with one gardener’s journey from concerned consumer to successful producer of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs.

| February/March 2012

  • Add Agastache rugosa to your Traditional Chinese Medicinal garden for your health.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • The roots of Aster tataricus are used to treat coughs and is known as Zĭ wăn.
    Photo by hanack
  • Worried about the quality of her Traditional Chinese Medicine herbs, Peg Schafer began growing them herself.
    Illustration by Elara Tanguy
  • Add Crateagus pinnatifida to your Traditional Chinese Medicinal garden for your health.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • Add Gentiana scabra to your Traditional Chinese Medicinal garden for your health.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • The bulbs of beautiful Lilium lancifolium are medicinal, and are known as băi hé.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • Peg Schafer is a longtime herb grower and teacher in Northern California. She encourages you to try growing some Chinese herbs in your garden in order to help ensure the availability and integrity of these medicinal wonders.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • Scutellaria baicalensis has beautiful flowers, but it is the root, known as hu•ng quÌn, that is used medicinally.
    Photo by Peg Schafer
  • Withania somnifera, an important herb in the ancient practice of Ayurveda in India, has crossed over into Western and Chinese herbalism.
    Photo by Neha.Vindhya

Comfortable and inviting, Peg Schafer’s 10-acre plot just outside Petaluma, California, welcomes visitors who’ve made their way down the long, dusty “road” to the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm. Her lovely, handcrafted home with its easy-going Northern California-Asian vibe was superbly and sustainably built by her husband, Andrew Jacobson. At the late-August timing of this visit, the turquoise skies are almost cloudless, the hills golden brown and an unidentifiable though undeniably pleasant scent hovers in the air.

Schafer’s greeting is as warm as the weather, but as soon as we enter the growing area, it’s obvious this is a place where business—a lot of business—gets done. Tools are everywhere, along with organized piles of herbs and the hum of a dehydrator that forms a steady accompaniment to conversation in Schafer’s office. When we head out to the trial garden and fields, it’s like visiting a friendly but somewhat alien land. There are mimosa and honeysuckle—recognizable, but who knew they were medicinal? And at last I get to see Withania somnifera, also known as ashwagandha, growing. It isn’t pretty, but it’s one of my favorite herbs, a great tonic herb that nourishes just about every system in the body. See it in the Image Gallery.

Schafer says she started her business because she saw a need for the Chinese medicinal herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to be grown and harvested safely, sustainably and with integrity—an approach that’s by no means a given in today’s market. She’s written her newly released book, The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production because she is a woman on a mission: She wants to encourage more people to follow in her footsteps, for the sake of health and ecology, and also to strengthen and diversify the growing stock of these remarkable plants. The following excerpt is for any of our readers who want to expand their herbal businesses or just grow a few healing herbs in their gardens.

Formerly editor in chief of The Herb Companion, K.C. Compton is senior editor at our sister publication, Mother Earth News.

My journey from raising vegetables to becoming a Chinese medicinal herb farmer started by accident—a car accident. I was not seriously injured, but I was pretty banged up. My friend Debra encouraged me to try acupuncture. After having some positive experiences with acupuncture, I started checking out Chinese medicinal herbs to see what they had to offer.

Then I hit a conundrum. The herbs were helping me effectively deal with some long-term physical issues, but I had concerns about the quality and what, besides herbs, was in the powders I was consuming. When I shared my concerns with my wise tortoise-like practitioner, Bill Fannin, he kept inquiring why I didn’t just grow my own traditional Chinese herbs. Always low-key, and with a little “Hmmm,” Bill would hand me a plant or two, saying that they were starts from his garden—and no, he didn’t want any money for them.

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