The following interview was conducted by Katherine Turcotte as part of a panel interview published in the Summer 2008 issue of The Herb Quarterly.
The panel included Gail Faith Edwards, Rosemary Gladstar, Susun Weed, Stephen Harrod Buhner and Christopher Hobbs. Gail's interview is below in its entirety. To see what the other herbalists had to say, find the Summer 2008 issue of The Herb Quarterly.
When did you become involved in herbalism?
I’m not sure there is any one time that I can put my finger on, it was more of a gradual evolution. My Italian grandparents had a lovely little garden out behind their brownstone in Hoboken, New Jersey. I remember playing with plants and soil back there as a child while they tended to their roses, tomatoes and fig trees. I must have been absorbing a deep love of nature from them, though it was completely unconscious at the time. My mother raised us with a respect for natural remedies; she offered a teaspoon of honey to ease a cough or sore throat and a cup of tea and slice of toast for nearly every other ailment. Later, as a teenager I began to study plants in earnest. A friend gave me a copy of Euell Gibbons’, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I was off! When I moved to Maine in the early 70’s I started walking the roadsides, fields and woods, identifying, gathering and drying plants and experimenting with making teas. From what at first seemed a mass of green, soon emerged individual plants that I began to have personal knowledge of. At the same time I started gardening, growing my own food and learning all I could about medicinal herbs. Susun Weed introduced me to the Wise Woman perspective in the early 80’s, and taught me to make basic herbal medicines. Since I was living a very simple life on the edge of the Maine wilderness, in a wonderful community of like-minded folks, and had given birth to four children at home, I had plenty of opportunities to use and share the simple herbal remedies I made from the plants I grew as well as wildgathered. At some point, after hearing several people refer to me as “the herbalist” I realized I no longer had to wonder what I was going to be when I grew up. I had arrived! Herbalism, and all things having to do with the natural world, remain a great passion of mine to this day.
Who was/were your mentor/mentors?
I’ve had some wonderful teachers over the years, and profound respect for the herbalists I am sharing this panel with here. But I can honestly say that the most outstanding, long lasting and unfailing mentors I’ve had throughout the years have been the plants themselves. From rose I learned to bloom with wild abandon, to protect myself when necessary and to be patient for the fruits of my labor. Lavender taught me to hold my head high, to be sweet and always bring an offering. From St. John’s wort I learned true compassion, that pain and sorrow are a natural part of life, and to trust that healing will eventually come. Dandelion showed me how important it is to be rooted in one place and the benefits of delving deep into the soil right around me for the sustenance I need. And from oats, I learned the magic of song, the essence of nourishment, the profound beauty of our Mother’s milk.
How do you feel about the standardization of herbal products and how does this affect the herbalist and the consumer?
As a practicing Community Herbalist I rely solely on whole plant medicines. I understand plants to possess spirit, amazingly complex chemistries and to be brilliantly and compassionately responsive to our needs. Not only is plant spirit, chemistry and intelligence involved, but also the energetics of the plant, and the whole plant medicine made from it reflects all of this. I simply do not believe that we can improve upon what nature has evolved over the millennia by bringing it into a laboratory, extracting only the so called “active” ingredients and then offering that in a standardized measure. In fact, I consider this approach to be a serious mistake and potentially dangerous to the consumer. For instance, we know that calcium absorption is dependent on the presence of magnesium. If we extract only the calcium from a plant, and then take that, expecting it to strengthen our bones or ease our anxiety, we will be sorely disappointed. Furthermore, herbalism is the medicine of the people. Anyone who can recognize a plant can make a medicine from it that will be useful to them. Herbalism encourages the responsibility for health to remain in the hands of each person, where it belongs. In that way it is empowering. Standardization removes plant medicine from the hands of the people, and puts it into the hands (pockets) of the pharmaceutical companies. I do not support, nor do I recommend this practice. All of that having been said, I am open to the possibility that there may be times or situations where a standardized medicine is called for and may be of some benefit. I just have not come across one yet.
How important is labeling of herbal products?
Honest labeling of herbal products is supremely, critically important. The common as well as the Latin names of the plant or plants used, whether or not they were organically grown, the exact menstrum the plant has been extracted into, and the correct dosage must be clearly stated on the label, as well as the name and address of the manufacturer and the amount/weight inside the package. The consumer has the right to know exactly what they are purchasing. I do not think putting health claims on a label is necessarily beneficial for the consumer. This practice can be misleading. Instead, the consumer has the responsibility of doing his or her own research before going off to purchase any herbal product.
Due to market demand, over harvesting and habitat destruction there is a serious shortage of medicinal plants. Many plants such as American Ginseng, Black Cohosh and Slippery Elm, to name just a few, are on the endangered list. What are you doing to counteract this problem?
This is a serious and potentially devastating problem, and we all need to be proactive in this area. Since my family and I are in the business of herbal medicine making we feel a great responsibility to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Every year for the past fifteen or so years we have been planting the seeds of endangered plants in our woods and around the wild edges of our gardens. We now have strong stands of American ginseng, black cohosh, blood root and goldenseal on our land. We supply bare roots of these endangered medicinal plants, as well as others, to FEDCO, a seed and plant cooperative here in Maine, who then sells these plants through their catalog to others wishing to grow, rather than wildgather endangered medicinal plants. Additionally, we are careful to do our wildgathering in areas on or around our own land, where we can sustainably manage our naturally wild stands. Our gardens and the wild areas we gather from as well as the plant medicines we make from them are all certified organic by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which ensures our customers that the medicines they obtain from us are of impeccable quality. We are long time members and supporters of MOFGA, an organization that is exceptionally diligent in supporting organic agricultural practices, offers a wide range of educational programs and works to protect the environment and ensure healthy, vibrant soil and ecosystems here in Maine and around the country.
What can the backyard herbalist do to protect herbs from becoming endangered?
Grow your own herbs as much as possible. I’ve heard it said that wild herbs are more potent than the garden grown variety, but I do not believe this for a minute! After thirty years of growing medicinal herbs I’ve learned that a perennial plant that decides to return where you’ve planted it, year in and year out, is every bit as powerful as any plant you will find growing in the wild. The plants that return have decided to return. They could just as easily have died out or moved out. They are working with you for the benefit of all. Respect the intelligence of the plants in your garden and the ones that grow along it’s wild edges. Even the plants that are growing in pots on your windowsill or porch can be magnificent allies. Talk to them. Tell them your needs. They will respond beyond your wildest imagination. Trust nature to provide what you need. She has been doing so for many thousands of years and there is no reason she will not respond to you. If you do wildgather plants, do so with utmost respect and consciousness. For instance, never take more than what you really need and can use from any wild stand of plants. Don’t wildgather endangered plants. If you should find a wild ginseng plant, or a bit of goldenseal, sit with it and learn from it. Absorb its wisdom and medicine through your pores and then leave it with a prayer of thanks for sharing itself with you. Always leave plenty of wild flowers behind to produce seeds. Go back to the area you’ve wildgathered from in the fall and do some caretaking and teach others to do the same.
How important is a formal education to some one considering studying herbal medicine?
Continuing education is vitally important to anyone studying or practicing herbal medicine. But formal education? Not so much…in fact it can be, and often is, a hindrance. I am completely self-educated with no formal education beyond high school. What this means is that I took responsibility for my own education, followed my heart and my interests and entertained a passion for learning throughout my life. I am still learning, and plan to continue learning until I die. What the herbalist most needs to study is nature. She or he needs to develop a compassionate heart. A wild heart. This is a heart and mind that resonates with the wild heart and mind of nature. An herbalist needs to be able to read from and understand the book of nature, to learn the wisdom of the plants directly. Understanding the plants does not necessarily require knowing lots of botanical terms, or formal names for individual parts of plants, as much as perceiving the inherent energy that is available there, the special gifts. This takes many years and lots of practice. It is a devotion. A sacred path. A way of life.
Would you recommend distance learning?
Highly! Working with a teacher who has already done this work and is accomplished at it, is a wonderful way to learn. She can take you by the arm and lead you down her well worn garden paths, even from a distance. She can guide you in the right direction, inspire you to experiment on your own, and help you to gradually develop the skills you will need. A knowledgeable teacher with a passion for her subject will show you where and how to gain the wisdom you are looking for, help you cut through what is unnecessary and get to the heart of the matter. Here at the Blessed Maine Herb Farm School of Herbal Medicine we offer a comprehensive, one year long, 12 lesson Herbal Medicine Correspondence Course that has been exceptionally well received. We also offer a three year Community Herbalist Program that combines both distance learning and hands on work at the farm. For students who prefer hands on learning we offer month long apprenticeship sessions at the farm during the summer months. Visit www.studyherbalmedicine.com to find out more.
Did you ever experience an epiphany moment while studying herbal medicine?
Please elaborate on this moment. Well…one day, after having just given birth to my fourth and last child, my daughter Belle, I was holding her in my arms, nursing her in my little house at the edge of our gardens. Outside, I could hear my other three children, ranging in ages from 3 to 10, playing on their favorite apple tree, the one with a sideways trunk that made it very easy for even the youngest to climb. They were all laughing with such pure and unadulterated joy, and the sound of such bliss coming from their play together, combined with the happiness and contentment I felt at holding my new infant in my arms put me into a timeless space of absolute ecstasy. I had the sense of being completely and utterly satisfied and fulfilled and in those few moments felt profoundly at one with all of creation and united with every mother who had ever lived on the planet. It was a defining moment for me, one I remember well and recall often. Although this episode was not especially related to herbal study, it was completely entwined with the natural world.
Is there one herb that you consider absolutely indispensable and why?
It is so hard to choose just one, but if pressed I would have to say Rosa rugosa. Roses are a mighty medicine, and I use them every day. During summers I cannot pass a rose bush without plucking a blossom and popping it directly into my mouth. I love eating them. We grow lots of roses on the Blessed Maine Herb Farm and pick them at the end of every day while they are blooming. Everyone takes pleasure in this task. We dry many of our roses to be blended into teas, which I enjoy drinking daily. I especially love roses in combination with oatstraw, St. John’s wort and lemon balm, and also combine them with lavender for a special treat. I love making and drinking rose mead, it is absolutely heavenly! We infuse a lot of roses in pure olive oil, for roses do wonders for the skin. I find the scent of roses to be exhilarating and calming at the same time, enjoy soaking my feet in a rose bath, and spray rose water on my face whenever I need to feel refreshed. I use rose glycerite, mostly during summers, and enjoy putting a dropperful or two into a pitcher of water to be enjoyed at our mid day meal. And, I chop rose blossoms into slivers, mix them with honey and spread this rose honey on toast. Roses help balance hormones, tone the brain, ease stress and anxiety, alleviate pain, soothe the heart, moisturize skin, inspire love, nourish the reproductive organs, and taste delicious. And then come the plump, immune boosting, vitamin C laden, bright red, rose hips! We string these on long strands for drying. They make great fall decorations, and we throw a few of these hips into the teas and infusions we make all winter long to protect against colds and flu.
Where do you see herbal medicine in twenty years?
Right where it is today, as it has been for thousands of years, still flourishing, prospering and thriving – offering nourishment for body, mind and spirit to all who knock at the door.Share on Facebook
Click on the picture/link below to read Gail's Ten-Fold Path for Becoming an Herbalist.