Just like the ubiquitous sassafras that brought the Island fame in 1602 when Bartholomew Gosnold christened his new “Martha’s Vineyard,” other herbs also call this home – and they’re easy to find and use for healing. Many of the simple wildflowers of field and garden are traditionally used as medicines.
We are fortunate to live in a time and place where we have access to many different types of healing therapies; if we are injured or sick, we have plenty of options for health care. In addition to conventional doctor’s visits, we have a variety of effective complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) we can turn to, including chiropractic, acupuncture, physical therapy, homeopathy, and herbal medicine.
In my opinion, none of these should be used in isolation, but should be part of a holistic and truly complementary “package.” In this way, you treat not only the organ, or the bone, or the injury, or the emotions, but you address the entire person; this is called holistic therapy.
As a plant lover, I’ve long recognized that plants form an integral part of healing and can be used safely and effectively in tandem with a variety of other therapies. While each healing tradition uses herbs in specific ways that require training (for example, mugwort is used in moxibustion during acupuncture), there are many simple herbs you can use at home that will enhance and improve the results of other therapies.
Many of the herbs mentioned below can be gathered in your own backyard or at a local field or farm: red clover, stinging nettle, yarrow, alfalfa, and oatstraw are all easy to find on the Island in the summer months. Check with Morning Glory Farm or the FARM Institute in Edgartown, or Slip Away Farm on Chappy, and ask if you might browse through their weed-and-sunflower population; their agricultural diversity lends itself well to finding patches of herbs with medicinal virtues. And rosemary, oregano, ginkgo, lemon balm, and comfrey are strong healing herbs to tuck into your garden. Be sure to get permission before foraging on private lands. Most public lands on the Island carry restrictions and many are oak-and-pine barrens which rarely yield medicinal herbs. The other herbs mentioned here can be ordered through Vineyard Herbs Teas & Apothecary or purchased at your favorite health food store.
Herbs are widely used to complement most alternative therapeutic disciplines, including the following.
AcupunctureSeveral herbs can energetically align the body to help make your acupuncture session more valuable. Tulsi, or holy basil, has long been used in India as a balancing herb that nourishes the meridian lines used in acupuncture. Ashwagandha is another that is considered not only “energetic” and tonic but also anti-inflammatory. To brew a quart of herbal tea, add 4 to 5 teaspoons of the herb to a quart jar and cover with boiling water. Brew 5 to 12 minutes, strain, and pour into a thermos; drink 2 to 4 cups throughout the day.
For tulsi and ashwagandha, add milk and honey.
Certain nutrient-dense herbs pack a lot of vitamins and minerals, and these can be helpful as an overall strategy when working with a chiropractor for issues involving muscles, joints, and bones. Calcium-rich herbs include oatstraw, comfrey leaf, red clover, alfalfa, and stinging nettles; horsetail is high in silica. Combining these in an herbal tea is a wonderful way to “drink your medicine.” Even better is soaking these fresh or dried herbs in apple cider vinegar, which pulls the minerals from the plant and makes them available to your body. In a pint jar, pour warmed vinegar over 4 to 6 teaspoons dried herbs and steep at room temperature for two weeks. If using fresh herbs, chop them and pack the jar full.
The original point of yoga was to stretch the body prior to long periods of meditation, so that the body would be satisfied while the mind reached states of higher consciousness. There are several plants that help improve memory and heighten mental clarity, making your time spent stretching and meditating even more effective. Lemon balm is renowned as a mental clarity herb and it can stimulate memory and keep the mind sharp. Ginkgo and rosemary stimulate blood flow to the brain, and violet, often used for skin or respiratory issues, is a wonderful calming herb for a “scattered” mind. Brew an herbal tea before yoga practice and keep in a thermos until you are ready to begin meditation.
Whether swimming, bathing, enjoying a sauna or using hot/cold treatments in a shower, water therapy is a popular and invigorating method for treating illness and rejuvenating the mind and body. The essential oils found in certain herbs can be very useful as a complement to these therapies: simply add a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil to a vat of steaming water for bronchial dilation, being sure to avoid contact with the eyes. Rosemary, tea tree, geranium, and oregano oils all work well here, too. For something simple from the kitchen, chop orange or lemon peel into chunks and add to simmering water for a similar invigorating effect.
Physical therapyHerbs can also be used to reduce inflammation, making physical therapy more effective. Some herbs, such as arnica flower and gingerroot, will naturally reduce inflammation when placed topically on the sore spot. Simply chop the herb and simmer in water or oil, strain while reserving the liquid, and apply to the skin using a soft cloth. This type of compress alleviates sore muscles and assists the body as it returns to its natural alignment. Other anti-inflammatory herbs include clove, St. John’s wort, and yarrow.
Herbalist and author Holly Bellebuono has practiced herbal medicine for 17 years. She directs the award-winning apothecary Vineyard Herbs Teas & Apothecary as well as the herb school Heritage & Healing Herbal Studies. Holly’s two books, “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health” and “The Authentic Herbal Healer,” along with her slide documentary “Our Healing Heritage,” celebrate the history of herbal medicine and its contemporary use.
Holly makes learning about the pharmacology of plants easy, bringing the health-giving properties of botanicals into the kitchen. Consultations are an effective way to determine which herbs will be useful for your own personal health, and these are available in person or by phone. Holly lectures nationally about natural healing, herbal medicine, and women’s empowerment.
Extra healthy would be walking while learning about and foraging for herbs. Holly leads guided herb walks and will even travel to your home to identify local herbs and suggest ways to turn them into salves and teas. Her workshops at the Polly Hill Arboretum usually include an herb walk — her popular salve-making workshops take place on July 2 and August 13 this summer — and she’ll present her slide documentary July 30 at the arboretum. Holly also guides hikes on popular Island trails such as Fulling Mill Brook in Chilmark, where she’ll introduce you to many of the wild edibles and medicinals, such as cat brier (you can nibble on the green tips), Indian pip, and the sassafras tree. Herb walks are $25 a person and last an hour and a half. Call 508-687-9600 or email Holly directly for reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org; more info at www.vineyardherbs.com.
— Jamie Stringfellow