Herbs or a Bottle of Pills?

Chris Smith Leads Class on Creating Edible Oils. Photo: Lise Jenkins


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

It started with some herbs in pots in our kitchen window. I happily snip while I cook, feeling righteous about growing our own ingredients. My superior attitude evaporated when I met the folks attending the N.C. Herb Association’s “Wild Herb Weekend” in Valle Crucis: These folks use herbs to make just about everything.

Abby Artemisia Leads a Plant Walk

Executive Director Camille Edwards described their members as, “Passionate about herbs who joyfully share their knowledge of how to identify, grow, use, respect, study and celebrate herbs of all kinds.” I must say Camille under-represented the group when she described them as folks who “joyfully share” — these are intense people.

Herbalists are a dynamic connection to a time when we drew everything we needed from the natural world. Today their individual passions build a mosaic of herbal products for our homes, our food and our bodies.

It’s hard to get a sense of how many people in our state make their living from herbs. It’s a broad industry comprised of growers producing medicinal and culinary herbs, herbalists who purchase the herbs they use from other sources and schools that instruct budding herbalists. N.C. State Extension Specialist Jeanine Davis, who focuses on mountain crops, explains that while there are no official statistics, the western part of our state is an herbal epicenter.

Herbalists are quick to point out their medicinal treatments have not been approved by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. While there are published medical trials that underpin the use of some herbal remedies, most herbalists point to folklore and traditional uses to support their claims.

It’s easy to forget these innocent-looking plants can pack a powerful punch, so employ caution when using herbal remedies, do your homework, and talk to your doctor before engaging an herbalist.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists more than 40,600 chemicals in their Toxic Substances Control Act Inventory — some of these chemicals can be found in our homes and everyday products. I’m not surprised people are looking for simpler solutions, while wanting more control over the medicine, food and products we use.

Herbs in My Window

While herbalism has deep roots in our state, I find myself struggling to span the gap between traditional cures and the western medical traditions that I was brought up with. The herbalists I talk to are quite enthusiastic about the effectiveness of their products but in order to accept their ideas I have to be willing to step into a new role.

Most western medicine casts the patient as a passive recipient of expert knowledge: When I’m sick, it’s comforting to let an expert take control and “fix” me — then I can go back to my daily life.

Herbalism embraces a longer view, seeking to maintain balance with small interventions to keep your lifestyle on a healthy path. I’m drawn to their ideas but the allure of immediate gratification of western medicine exerts a strong pull.

We live in times when people are questioning many mainstream institutions, including how we approach medical care. Perhaps the answers we seek reside less in the world we manufacture but the one that surrounds us.

For more information about the N.C. Herb Association and their July 2020 Wild Herb Weekend, visit their website: ncherbassociation.org.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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