"Useful non-commercial plants of the Youth Farm, aka Weed Walk"
An annual workshop for the Youth Farm crew about plant medicine
(In much better words than I could conjure up on this hot afternoon)
1. I am not an expert. I have been studying herbs intentionally for about seven years, in varying degrees of intensity and in various ways (reading books, taking workshops, class series, and experimentation with myself, friends, and family), but I've only scratched the surface. My training has been focused primarily on Western European herbs that have naturalized here in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many northwest native species. Most of my perspective comes from two teachers, Jaci Guerena and Howie Brounstein, as well as a smattering of other teachers at herbal gatherings and workshops. If anyone ever tells you they're an expert in herbal medicine, run away.
2. Plants have been used across cultures and throughout history to maintain health, prevent illness, and heal disease. Our role as learners and aspiring herbalists is to practice respect for the cultural traditions that have passed down knowledge of plant medicine that we receive- including from our own cultures- and be ever respectful and reverent to the plants themselves. Study ethical wildcrafting before harvesting beyond your garden or farm. Learn from and practice with people, not just books (and particularly not the herbal hogwash-laden internet!). Be curious and skeptical about both herbal traditions and modern medical practices, and find your place within that dynamic landscape. Modern medicine is very effective and useful for treating disease, and holistic modalities like herbalism can contribute greatly to promoting wellness-- each has its place, and the goal of this workshop is to introduce you to some of the potential roles that plants can have in health.
3. Plant medicine is a spectrum, from everyday foods that are nutritious, to everyday tonic herbs that have minor long-term secondary benefits, to more potent plants that should be consumed only when needed, to very specialized medicines that are taken with caution under care from an herbalist, to toxic and poisonous plants that we should always avoid. "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." Hippocrates knew what he was talking about, and it's taking a global health crisis to wake us back up to this simple adage. Using plants as medicine is simply an extension of using plants as food: get to know them, love them, and incorporate them into life.
4. Questions and requests from the crew: Are there any studies directly comparing the effectiveness of certain herbs and modern medicines? How do you know when a plant crosses from being medicinal to toxic? Is the amaranth weed we have here on the farm medicinal? How in the world is stinging nettle good for you? Why do so many plants have "wort" in the name?
5. The lawn: Plantain (Plantago major). Not your average banana tree. After someone immediately plucks a stem from the plant, we talk about intentionality and respect in harvesting. Make a spit poultice by chewing up a couple leaves and apply it to bug bites, stings, and splinters.
6. The culinary garden: Calendula (Calendula officinalis), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Oregano (Oreganum vulgare), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and Sage (Salvia spp). Calendula is an all-purpose skin healer, especially good for itchiness, eczema, rashes, and irritations. It's also soothing to the internal skin of the digestive system, and it's a beautifully bright edible flower to add to salads and desserts. We each try a couple petals. The "spaghetti pot" herbs, as my teacher Jaci called them, are all anti-viral and anti-microbial, making a good flavorful pot of sauce especially healthful during cold season.
7. The medicinal garden: We nibble on the pungent leaves of Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and laugh about feline arousal, rub St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) flowers between my fingers to show off its deep red medicinal hue, and taste Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) leaves past their prime. Mint family plants are rich in volatile oils, which is why they often smell so strongly and make good additions to medicinal formulas.
8. The marsh under our noses: Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis). It grows in wet soils, which is why it's thriving in the drainage area near the produce washing tubs, where we see and walk past it every day. Feel it! Sighs and ooohs come from the group as they run their fingers along the leave and stems. The flowers aren't particularly flavorful or sweet, but the crew likes them. They feel puffy in the mouth, suggestive of its adulterated confectionary namesake. And just as it feel soft and soothing to our fingers, the mucilage in this plant's leaves, flowers, and roots soothes the respiratory and digestive tracts.
And that's it. One hour. Fourteen young adults. Ten or so plants, all within a few dozen feet of one another at the front of the farm. Such a short, small introduction... but an introduction nonetheless. And a tasty one, at that.