On a family retreat to Costa Rica last month, Maia Toll didn't have her full collection of herbal remedies on hand, so she had to be creative. When a mysterious rash bloomed over her niece's face, she soothed it with mashed cucumber. A bashed toe got slathered with arnica homeopathic and "an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink salve" that her husband, Andrew, had picked up in Peru. A grease burn found relief with lavender essential oil. The oddest vacation complaint? A tickling in the ear that her brother-in-law developed after spearfishing in the ocean. Toll flushed his ear and watched in amazement as a tiny, cellophane-clear crustacean crawled out. It's fitting that, as an herbalist and educator who teaches others how to make DIY medicines, Toll would also become her family's de facto healer—a role she's come to embrace. At holidays and gatherings, she says, "The words after 'hello' are often 'Aunt Maia's here now. She'll have something for that.'"
Treating common complaints with common materials is an art and a skill that our ancestors possessed but that's largely lost today. In our culture of CVS convenience, it's all too easy to hand over our health to a brand-name label or Big Pharma script. People like Toll remind us that there's another way—a simpler, connected-to-the-earth way of taking charge of our own bodies. In her online course The Kitchen Witch's Workshop, Toll teaches the nuts and bolts of making your own herbal medicines, from syrups and tinctures to oils and balms. And it's easier than people think; making a tincture involves no more than putting your chosen herbs into a mason jar, filling it to the rim with vodka or cider vinegar, stirring, and sealing. "If you can find your way around the kitchen, you can make your own herbal medicines," says Toll, a former denizen of Beacon who now lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches students from around the world. Yet despite how simple it is, "there's a lot of resistance, because we've been told it's not something we can really do. It's amazing to realize how conditioned we are to think that we can't take care of ourselves."
A Plant-Based Call to Action
Crafting our own "witchy" brews (to use Toll's reclaimed word) isn't the only alternative to mainstream medicine. Nowadays, we can choose from shelf-loads of herbal remedies at our local health food stores and apothecaries. But unbeknownst to many, these products might not always be there. Newly stringent FDA regulations, set in motion gradually over the past few years, are putting the squeeze on small herbal companies that make wild-crafted salves, tonics, tinctures, and body products. (One such company, Avena Botanicals, based in Rockport, Maine, is running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to help them keep up with the latest FDA requirements.) It's worrisome that many of our favorite natural wellness and body-care products might become endangered before too long. But it's also a wakeup call that could launch more people on the path to making their own remedies and elixirs for wellness, beauty, and pleasure.
"If you start to take your health into your own hands and really ask questions, then you can see that there are a lot of answers in herbal medicine," says New Paltz-based herbalist Dina Falconi, author of Earthly Bodies & Heavenly Hair (Ceres Press, 1997) and Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook (Botanical Arts Press, 2013). "There's a lot of healing that can occur without having to jump over to pharmaceuticals yet—though when we need pharmaceuticals it's great to have them." Falconi teaches a six-month herbal intensive course that meets one Saturday a month from May to October on her six-and-a-half-acre property, amid a helter-skelter mix of wild and cultivated gardens. "True, 'normal' gardeners have heart attacks when they come here," she says of her landscape, where wild lettuce and other weeds—the medicinal powerhouses of the flora world—are given the space and encouragement to stretch out and thrive. Students in her course learn how to identify helpful botanicals, becoming plant literate as well as kitchen literate.
The intimate connection between food and medicine is a running theme for Falconi; in her clinical herbalism work, she always looks at a client's diet first. "Food is our primary source of healing," she says. "Once we've covered that base, there are so many wonderful herbs that can be part of the program. Nettles [which emerge in May] are a food medicine, and also dandelion, burdock, milky oat tops, oatstraw. Those are five really basic, common plants that have so much to offer. They have nutrient density, so they're really nourishing the body; they also have several chemical constituents or compounds that support liver function, kidney function, the nervous system." Falconi recommends not just making medicines and tonics, but also cooking with these herbs. "When nettles are out, you could be eating Swiss chard but you're using nettles instead—in your omelet, your quiche, your soup. What you're going to get is more magnesium, calcium, protein. It's powerful, nourishing food that's equal to medicine."