Did your grandmother ever rub mustard plaster on your chest when you were congested or offer you a honey-lemon drink to help soothe a sore throat? Have you ever used aloe vera gel on a burn? How about applying a few drops of lavender essential oil on your skin to help you sleep?
These “plant-lore” remedies have their roots in herbalism—the study and use of medicinal plants. Using plants to help us heal is a tradition as old as the human race and extends to every culture around the globe. A text from Ancient Egypt describes 800 recipes for herbal remedies, and similar records indicate the importance of medicinal plants in India, China, and Ancient Greece and Rome. More recently, Shakespeare referred to the uses of herbs in many of his plays.
These days we have easy access to herbs and can learn about their many healing applications from books and classes. We also have scientific tools to help us discern fact from fiction. For example, studies show that garlic can help improve cardiovascular risk factors. In fact, many of the meds we take today, such as aspirin, for example, are derivatives of plants.
“Plants are the foundation of a lot of our medication,” said Jennifer Lam, pharmacist at Sam’s Club on Virginia Beach Boulevard. She recalls taking organic chemistry and learning about the molecular makeup of plants while studying to become a pharmacist. Individual plant compounds are synthesized in a lab to create many of today’s meds, she explained.
But some believe using plants in their natural form is a better way. Let’s meet a few local women who have studied herbs and learn about what they do and why they do it.
A PERSONAL APPROACH
Deborah Dunn, owner of SAGE Holistic Health and Wellness Center in Williamsburg, has been studying herbs for 30 years. She worked as a chef in the hospitality industry and loved cooking, but her heart wasn’t in the corporate world. After returning to school, Deborah became a health coach, and that’s when she discovered her passion for herbs.
“I’ve always enjoyed nutrition, good health, and good food,” Deborah said. She wanted to learn more about plants and herbs, but her job required her to travel frequently. When her son entered the military, she decided it was time to do something for her. In 2007, she received her bachelor’s degree in holistic nutrition and is now a certified holistic health counselor.
In September 2013 she began attending weekly classes at Sacred Plant Traditions, a center for herbal studies in Charlottesville, studying traditional Western herbalism. “I started classes when the plants and herbs were slowly dying, going back into the earth,” she said. “I will finish this year in the spring when things will be sprouting outside.”
Deborah counsels clients on how to take better care of their health. “They need someone to help them,” she said, “and I make them better. It’s a win-win.” She also offers monthly workshops for women and men. These range from cooking lessons to visits to her apothecary with 130 varieties of herbs and teas from around the world.
“Any time is a good time for a better lifestyle,” Deborah said. “There is no age limit. Being proactive about your health is so important. I was on high blood pressure medicine for five years, but due to the herbs and my lifestyle, I am no longer on it.”
Deborah keeps herbal teas and syrups in her home office and has seasonal favorites. During cold and flu season, she drinks elderberry syrup (sambucus). “You can add some raw honey, brandy, a little mullein leaf, and you’ve just boosted your immune system,” she explained. “Our ancestors were all raised on herbs,” said Deborah, whose Italian grandmother picked them on a daily basis. “God intended for us to eat for the seasons.”
“I work on my clients with their own bio-individuality,” she explained. “There’s not one diet or health trick that works for everyone. You need food and beverages that are in tune with your body. Stress goes into our gut and into our ailments.” She helps clients “find and become more aware of their balance.”
“I take a very personal approach to my job,” Deborah said. “I want everyone to be happy and it’s not impossible. It’s our choice.”
INTO THE WOODS
“The woods and fields are a table always spread,” said Ila Hatter, a Pocahontas descendent also known as the “lady of the forest.” Naturalist, herbalist, and wild food forager Vickie Shufer would agree.
While Vickie was studying outdoor recreation at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, she came to Virginia Beach for a naturalist internship at what was then Seashore State Park (now First Landing). She fell in love with the area and discovered her passion for wild plants.
More than 35 years later, Vickie has created a life and business in Tidewater. She rents a large farm next to the North Landing River Preserve in the Blackwater area of Virginia Beach and owns 16 acres “down the road” in North Carolina, a place Vickie calls Wild Woods Farm, where she propagates native and medicinal plants.
Vickie likes to “play” in the woods, she said, foraging for whatever goods the season brings—berries in the summer, greens in the spring, roots in the fall, and nuts in the winter, to be dried and preserved for a winter source of protein.
Vickie has been a wild food forager most of her life, but in her woods she and others forage not just for food, but for medicinal plants. Evening primrose (a root veggie known for its essential fatty acid) added to burdock, yellow dock, and dandelion roots (for detox/cleansing) make a healthy soup, according to Vickie. “I have the best collection of wild greens in the city,” she said smiling.
In order to share her love of the woods along with her knowledge, Vickie founded Eco Images in 1986. She continues to work in local state parks, doing nature programs about the coastal environment, its flora and fauna for all ages. She also offers field trips for kids, introducing them to wild habitats. “Children learn and they don’t forget,” said Vickie, who teaches survival programs, too.
False Cape State Park is one of her favorite places to do workshops and field trips, she said. On occasion she travels to the mountains west of D.C. for tasting tours, wild food foraging, and “food medicine.” Her favorite Southern Maryland spot to visit and give tours is Dr. James Duke’s Green Farmacy Garden. She also offers workshops about wild foraging and medicinal plants at New Earth Farm on Indian River Road in Virginia Beach.
Vickie went back to school to “fill in the blanks,” getting a master’s degree in 2013 in therapeutic herbalism from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. She wants to teach people how to make and use herbal medicines. “We can heal ourselves from our backyard,” Vickie said. It’s easy: just Google the name of an herb or an ailment with the word herb.
“If you eat the right things, they will help prevent illnesses. Pharmaceuticals often treat the symptoms, not the root of the problem—no pun intended!” Vickie said. “Plants have so many nutrients and minerals. We need better lifestyles and food choices. We need an investment in our health.”
Chesapeake resident Patty Robbins has been in the healthcare field for more than 30 years, first as a nurse and now as a nurse practitioner. She’s also a certified herbalist. She said she loves studying plants and finding their purpose.
“We have an awful lot of ordinary plants that are not only beneficial to health, but that have medicinal components as well,” she said. For example, the dandelion and deadnettle chickweed are good to eat and also have medicinal properties.
Patty is interested in the combination between allopathic (Western) and naturopathic (alternative) medicine, but keeps her practices separate. “Both are honorable and deserve a spot in my world,” she said.
Though she’s no longer active, she is also a Master Gardener. “The knowledge and passion are still there. I’ve so enjoyed getting to know the plants in a garden perspective,” Patty said. With herbalism she learns more about the herb’s “growth signature,” which is the precise course of events during growth, she explained. She’s pleased to have her great grandmother’s recipe book, which contains articles and recipes on how to treat common ailments with herbs and plants. “We are rapidly losing touch with our plant beings,” Patty said, “how we need them and what role they play in our life.”
Eating organic food is essential to good health, says Patty. She’s a breast cancer survivor who questioned what caused her to get the illness. Genetics weren’t a factor, she determined, so she looked at the food she ate and her environment. “I realized I can’t control my outer environment, but I can make sure of what I put in my body,” she said.
When she started incorporating organic food into her diet, the difference was “amazing.” She realized she hadn’t really been tasting the food she ate. Now she stays away from processed foods and foods with heavy pesticides—and she uses herbs to enhance the flavors of the dishes she prepares. “I feel a huge difference,” Patty said. “I’m not as exhausted.”
She takes a teaspoon of coconut oil a day and will often eat protein-rich greens, like kale and broccoli. She now uses natural products for her hair and skin, always keeping wellness in mind. She’s happy that others are taking more of an interest in what they put in and on their bodies. “I think it’s great to see more people looking up a plant’s nutritional value,” she said.
Patty said she tries something different every decade: holistic nursing, healing touch nursing, and now interactive imagery. She’s also an artist who paints when she makes the time. Her varied interests help bring her a more complete understanding of us as humans, she said. She’s not sure what comes next, but she thinks she’d like to “grow plants and teach people.”
There seems to be a groundswell of interest—especially among women—to get back to basics. While modern tools may make life easier, they also seem to distance us from the natural world we live in. These three area women believe that taking time to learn about our planet’s rich resources can help us become healthier and happier.
Perhaps our ancestors were on the right track, and now it’s time to go back to the past to find the answers we seek.
For more information,
• Deborah Dunn, CHHC AADP ~ SAGE Holistic Health and Wellness Center
• Vickie Shufer ~ Eco Images
• Order herbs from www.swherb.com.
Mary Ellen Miles is a freelance writer who lives in Virginia Beach.