Explore healing herbs in your own kitchen

"The Healing Kitchen" by Holly Bellebuono

This is the fantasy that strikes you as you peruse the pages of Holly Bellebuono’s new book, “The Healing Kitchen”: You decide to give up everything in life that had any meaning for you — farewell hedge-fund trading or eBay sales or construction work. Your true dream, you suddenly realize, is to establish a garden of the Finzi-Continis where you’ll raise green nettles, gotu kola, and dandelion root for teas that will cause loved ones to throw away their walkers and learn to foxtrot.

You’ll be inspired to plant herbs you’ve never heard of, such as cleavers (Galium aparine to those in the know), which Ms. Bellebuono describes thus: “Historically the herb was harvested as a vegetable to be steamed or chopped into soups.” She herself finds cleavers stringy and unpalatable this way, but she also mentions it was once used as “bedstraw” to stuff mattresses. But we go on to learn “cleavers is a renowned herbal remedy employed for ‘draining’ the lymph glands and vessels that shunt lymph fluid directly toward the heart.” We’ll take it!

For the most part, you’ll feel you’re on solid ground growing such herbs as fennel and borage for making a fruit vinegar for salads, or motherwort to relieve anxiety, exhaustion, and the extreme fear that leads to heart palpitations. (I’d throw out my Prozac right now, but I need to give the motherwort time to grow.)

In all seriousness, whether you garden a lot, a little, or have only ever dreamed of owning a herbarium, this book is both a comforting and an inspirational text, and a glorious testament to a theory so many of us hold dear: Nature grows everything we need for health and vitality.

There’s a thrill factor in each of Ms. Bellebuono’s pronouncements, such as “If you are blessed with an abundance of angelica or a lot of lemon balm, you’ll want to process it and store it properly so you can continue to use it after its growing season has passed.” Or how about this: “A well-made basil pesto is a gift from the gods, but don’t despair if you don’t have sweet or Genovese basil growing in your garden. There are many ways to make a delicious and memorable pesto using the abundant leaves that grow wild all around us — lamb’s quarter, parsley, hyssop, nettle, and dandelion all make spectacular pestos.” This comes as a relief. Had I been told I’d need to cultivate Genovese basil for pesto, I’d be sobbing against the stockade wall of my backyard right now, which is mostly dedicated to storing my neighbor’s landscaping tools.

The most welcome part of this slim encyclopedia for all things delicious and medicinal in the garden is that Ms. Bellebuono makes all things easy to prepare. A digestive smoothie has only three ingredients for the powder blend which is added to juice: fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and triphala powder.

Ms. Bellebuono has taken recipes and tips from a number of other herbalists, chefs, authors, bloggers, and farmers, including our Island’s own Jan Buhrman, Blaire Edwards, Heather Thurber, and Catherine Walthers. Ms. Bellebuono lectures at conferences and retreats, and is the author of several prior books, including “The Essential Herbal for Natural Health,” and “Women Healers of the World.” A formulator and herbalist, she founded Vineyard Herbs, Tea and Apothecary, and sells her original tea blends at Whole Foods, Stop and Shop, and other businesses in New England. (Maybe we won’t need to plant cleavers after all; we can get them from Vineyard Herbs, et al.)

Now excuse me while I whip up a Brain Tonic Smoothie (lemon balm, peppermint powder, sage … so far so good) before I achieve the clarity to tell you more. On every page you’ll find something to ponder and plan, such as Herbal Cocoa Spread, Pumpkin Seed Butter, and Tropical Coconut and Cardamom Yogurt. If a full-fledged garden appears about as likely to develop in your yard as an infinity pool, at least read this book, dream a little, learn a lot, pledge to eat and drink with good nutritional succor in mind, and at least set aside a few ceramic planters for growing rooibos tea in the fall. In Ms. Bellebuono’s words, “Rooibos tea has become a favorite in recent years because it offers a rich and complex flavor and a boost in energy, yet it is caffeine-free. I love to enjoy this heady, heavenly drink hot for a satisfying, fortifying feeling on a cold day.”

You see what she does there? She transforms you into a dedicated and slightly mystical gardener overnight. Just open up “The Healing Kitchen” and put on some canticles of St. Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, composer, and herbalist of the 12th century. Ms. Bellebuono fills those same shoes in the 21st (without having to make music or run a convent).

Enjoy this healing and life-changing book.