Over the past two weeks, I’ve been taking herbalism classes at the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s urban farm in Washington, D.C. I got to talk to other plant nerds, ate all kinds of weeds, and learned LOADS. I loved it so much that I’m already planning to sneak back down to D.C. in October to get my season’s worth of herbal info in the autumn classes.
Since it’s summer (and, as everyone in New York reminded me before I can here: summers in D.C. are brutal. (although I hate to burst your collective bubbles, NYC people, but here in D.C. we have air conditioning and trees and sky which makes summertime nine-hundred percent more bearable)), we talked about and touched and smelled and ate cooling herbs – the little guys that help with heat-related ailments like sunburn, bug bites, agitation, nerves, and insomnia. The classes were taught by Holly Poole-Kavana, an herbalist who, in my book, is the perfect balance of woo and evidence-based practices.
How much is there really to say about plants? Ohmylord, SO MUCH. I took notes and I know that I still missed gobs. Here are my six favorite things that I learned.
*I write about uses for plants as a novice herbalist, not a doctor or scientist; this isn’t medical advice. If you want to use plant-based remedies, find a doctor you trust and respect who also trusts and respects you so that you can work together to make sure you’re the healthiest version of you.
1. Peach Leaf Tea Is Delicious
At the end of the first class, our teacher pulled out a jar full of water and leaves. She used the lid to strain the leaves while she poured a little of the leaf-water into dixie cups for us to try. Y’all, it tasted exactly like a fresh peach!
Like all the other herbs we talked about, peach leaves are cooling. They make the perfect sun tea for a hot day and have the added benefit of calming down people who are nervous or can’t sleep. All you’ve got to do is fill a jar with fresh peach leaves and water, let it sit for a few hours, and then strain the leaves out. You can add honey (or other herbs!) but it’s pretty damn tasty on its own.
2. Nature Makes It’s Own Allergy Medicine
In our first class, we collected ragweed and made a ragweed tincture. Why would anyone want to ingest the weed that’s responsible for millions of people’s fall allergy symptoms each year? Apparently, about a third of people respond so well to taking ragweed that it completely clears up their runny noses and itchy eyes. While those other two-thirds of the population don’t see any improvement, they also don’t suffer in any way. Which is to say, you might wanna try it in case you’re one of those lucky one in three people who can toss out their Claritin.
3. Weeds Are Just Plants We Don’t Grow on Purpose
Almost all the plants we talked about aren’t necessarily things you would grow on purpose. I mean, you don’t really grow peach trees for the leaves, and no one grows ragweed for fun. They might be hierbas malas to gardeners, but weeds are good for all kinds of things.
Since so many healing herbs are considered to be trash by most people, they’re available for free to anyone paying attention. As soon as our teacher pointed out plantain, I realized I’d been seeing it my whole life and had no idea that it had so many healing properties.
As if to point out just how complex weeds can be, ragweed was growing in three different forms in the 10’x10′ garden plot we were standing in. One had smaller, curlier leaves, one had strong, pointy leaves, and one had broader, rounder leaves. Even as we try to eradicate weeds like ragweed, nature finds a way to create variation.
4. Blood is Really Good at Multi-Tasking
Remember learning about your circulatory system in elementary school? Pop quiz: what does your blood do? If you said “carry oxygen and carbon dioxide around our body,” you’re not wrong, but there’s so much more it does. Blood carries heat and nutrients to different parts of your body while also removing waste and interacting with your lymphatic system.
Why does this matter? Well, a lot of times herbalists talk about herbs like burdock and dandelion being alteratives or “blood purifiers.” This is a weird name because a) blood isn’t unclean and doesn’t need to be purified and b) what the eff does that mean? Our teacher explained that alteratives generally are blood cheerleaders: they help your blood do its job just a little bit better.
This still doesn’t explain why alteratives help clear up skin conditions, but it’s possible that things like eczema caused by an overactive and inefficient immune system is cleared up when your circulatory and lymphatic system start working better.
5. We Could Use More Bitters In Our Diets
Bitter flavors are great for our digestion. They stimulate the production of saliva which jumpstarts your whole digestive system and makes eating an all-around happier process. The thing is, we’ve almost entirely bred bitter flavors out of our fruits and vegetables since it’s such an unpleasant taste.
Not all bitter flavors are bad, though. Arugula is pretty darn bitter and it’s on menus all over the place. Bitters are making a comeback in fancy cocktails, with devoted bartenders even seeking out herbs from gardeners to make homemade bitters. A common bitter that tastes great is wood sorrel. It looks a whole lot like clover, but it tastes ten times better. Next time you see some growing, pinch a few leaves off and try it.
6. Washington, D.C. Is Full of Community Gardens
You know that feeling when you’ve never thought of something, but then someone points it out to you and then you can’t stop seeing it everywhere? That’s how I feel about community gardens in D.C. On my ride home, I saw three other gardens along the road and since the end of my classes, I found a community garden in my neighborhood (more on that in another post) and have seen tons as I’ve been biking around.
You can find a community garden near you with the D.C. Community Garden Map