Ancient Chinese Herbs in Northern California

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Remnant trees from long-ago orchards dot the property.
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The Stanford Inn nestles in a meadow overlooking Mendocino Bay.
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These garden-worthy Chinese medicinal herbs are generally winter-hardy in the United States and are suitable for wide geographic cultivation.
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Jessica and Ken Rose are herbalists and practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
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Guests find a great opportunity to reconnect with nature.
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Using various organic methods, the inn's gardens produce beautiful vegetables and cut flowers in addition to the Chinese medicinal herbs.

Jessica Curl Rose’s was no run-of-the-mill childhood. Instead of playing in the ‘burbs, Jessica grew up in the redwood forests of the Mendocino coast, just north of San Francisco. While many kids her age were spending hours watching cartoons, Jessica stayed by her mother’s side as she worked outdoors in the garden and combed the redwood forests and meadows looking for healing plants. 

It’s no surprise then that when Jessica went away to college on the East Coast, she took her love of plants with her. As an undergrad at Bard College in New York, Jessica studied medical anthropology. She then pursued a graduate degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine, a major that combines acupuncture with Chinese herbal medicine.

Today, back in Mendocino, Jessica and her herbalist husband, Ken Rose, have established a thriving Traditional Chinese Medical practice at the Stanford Inn, just south of Mendocino. Their patients are members of the local community and guests at the inn, which is rapidly becoming a healing destination.  

The Stanford Inn and the Roses’ clinic occupy an exceptional piece of land at the mouth of Big River, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As coincidence would have it, the location is the very spot where nearly 200 years earlier, Chinese workers who fueled the logging and railroad industries of the area lived and planted the medicinal herbs they had brought with them from China.

“You can still see surviving trees from the orchard planted back then,” Jessica says. “Our presence at the inn feels more and more like the continuation of an ongoing thread of cultural confluence.”

Meeting over Medicine

Ken began serious training in Taijiquan (tai chi chuan) in 1970 and, because in China good martial arts teachers are also adept at Traditional Chinese Medicine, he also began to study “bone medicine,” a discipline that could most readily be likened to sports medicine in the West. Additionally, he spent all of the 1990s and early 2000s studying and practicing in southwestern China and Beijing.

When he came to lecture at a conference in San Diego, he met Jessica, who was attending the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and tending the school’s small medicinal herb garden. Ken expressed his interest in learning to grow medicinal herbs and Jessica had a good source for seeds.  

The two married eventually, spent a year in China studying the cultivation of medicinal herbs, then returned to live and plant herbs in Jessica’s old Mendocino stomping grounds. They planted a small herb garden at home, but were also aware of the spectacular organic herb, flower and vegetable gardens at the Stanford Inn. They also knew of the growing reputation of Joan and Jeff Stanford, owners of the inn, as leaders in developing ecologically sound gardening strategies. The inn was (and still is) a training center for Ecology Action, an organization that trains people in intensive biodynamic farming methods, then sends them to developing countries to teach the locals how to grow vegetables under challenging conditions with limited space.

When a friend offered to introduce the couple to Joan Stanford, they jumped at the chance. Joan and Jeff offered Ken an opportunity to teach tai chi to guests at the inn, then gave the couple space and time to establish a clinical practice there.

As an adjunct to their clinical practice, Jessica and Ken teamed up with the inn’s general manager and garden designer, Dana Ecelberger, to establish a lifelong dream: a Chinese medicinal herb garden.
Jessica and Ken started talking with Ecelberger about growing Chinese herbs as soon as they started working out of the inn. Ecelberger had already been growing medicinal herbs from European and Native American healing traditions in the organic gardens there.

“We had all, independently, attended a weekend workshop on growing Chinese herbs,” Jessica says, “so Dana was already planning to install a medicinal garden.” With the help of Peggy Schafer, owner of the Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm in Petaluma, the Chinese medicinal herb garden at the inn became a reality.

According to Jessica and Ken, having the herbs planted so close to their clinic makes it easy for them to observe which gardening techniques produce the most effective herbs. “It is a story about the connections between people and plants,” Jessica says. “We are trying to connect our patients with the plants that will heal them.”

As a part of creating that connection, Dana, Jessica and Ken are establishing a sort of community-supported agriculture (CSA) program for medicinal Chinese herbs that presumably would be a first in the country. Their customers would be their local patients and other practitioners, as well as the local health-food store. Dana says customers could pre-order the herbs they needed, and the trio would then organize local growers to farm herbs best suited to their microclimate and size.

Food as Medicine: Ravens’ Restaurant

“There is a belief in China that the chef is the highest form of doctor,” Jessica says, “and a well-documented body of knowledge about what foods help to heal what conditions. In some restaurants, each item on the menu lists what the dish is beneficial for. You create your own meals from the menu.”

Sally Owens, the chef at the inn’s signature vegan restaurant, Ravens’, takes an interest in Chinese theories about food as medicine, and has incorporated ingredients from the inn’s Chinese medicinal gardens into her menu. For instance, she makes a dumpling dish from the Chinese yam (Shan Yao), and is working on an entire medicinal menu to be served once a week, as well as creating medicinal cocktails using herbs.

Growing Chinese Medicinal Herbs in Your Garden

These garden-worthy Chinese medicinal herbs are generally winter-hardy in the United States and are suitable for wide geographic cultivation. None have invasive qualities. All are herbaceous perennials. Note: These herbs are most often used in combination with other herbs; please consult a licensed herbal practitioner before using.

Baikal Scullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis) is a beautiful long-blooming blue-flowered herb that grows to 1 1/2 inches tall. The bright yellow roots are the part traditionally used as a “heat-clearing” herb.

Balloon Flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) as a medicinal is the species or non-selected form of the herb. It is an attractive blue flowered 2-inch-tall perennial. The white roots are used as a tonic and in addressing lung issues.

Blackberry Lily (Belamcanda chinensis) is a tough-as-nails orange-flowered herb growing to 3 inches tall. The foliage is very iris-like, however it is the school-bus-orange roots that are used in Chinese medicine to “clear heat.”

Korean Mint  (Agastache rugosa) is as pretty and gentle an herb as it is useful–in tea it has a pleasant licorice flavor. Blue to purple flowers bloom atop 3- to 4-inch-tall plants. The leaves and flowers are used to address stomach complaints.

Poor Man’s Ginseng (Codonopsis pilosula) is a graceful climber to 8 inches sporting campanula-like white to blue flowers. Poor man’s ginseng is an important Chinese herb traditionally used as a tonic.

Red Sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza) is not only an attractive and durable purple flowering herb 2 to 3 inches tall, it is one of the most important Chinese medicinal herbs. It has a long history of use in treating cardiovascular and circulatory disorders.

Source: The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm: A Cultivator’s Guide to Small-Scale Organic Herb Production (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), by Peggy Schafer, to be published in November. 

Lynn Alley is a food, wine and travel writer who lives in Southern California. She has written five cookbooks and has a sixth, Slow Cooker Soups (Ten Speed Press), due out this fall.

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