Herbalism takes root as healthy alternative

As medicine has advanced, some folk remedies have persisted, such as the use of aloe on sunburns or local honey for seasonal allergies. A few local groups are hoping to revive herbal traditions to boost overall health.

At a recent class at Reclaiming Our Roots, a community herbalism clinic in North Stonington, herbalist Angel Putney hosed off the roots and stalks of a few plants she picked from her garden that morning to make teas and tinctures. Using echinacea, a native purple coneflower, as an example, she told her class of six that many plants in herbal medicine are traditionally used for something specific, such as a cold, but can be used in a more general sense, such as immune support.

“We depend on plants for everything. Our shelter is built out of plants, our food is built out of plants; they clean our air, they feed the soil, they’re a really integral part,” Putney said. “I find that in working in plant medicine, people really reconnect.”

Herbalists use the chemical properties of plants to address or treat a given condition. Ivy Burns, who leads the women’s herbalism and farming group at Sunstone Farm in Pawcatuck with farmer Hannah Robinson, said that historically everyone had a working knowledge of what plants they could forage for various ailments, especially women. Their group, held every other week through the fall, is trying to bring that back.

“We want this to be empowering,” Burns said. “I know, speaking for both of us, that we’ve found a lot of power knowing the plants around us and being comfortable outside.”

The elderberry tree that grows in the middle of the area fenced off for the goats and poultry, for example, produces berries that were traditionally used to aid digestion, and the flowers earlier in the season can be made into tea. A quick walk down the long, wooded driveway of Sunstone yielded yarrow for toothaches, plantain for bug bites, and jewelweed for an antidote to poison ivy.

Karen Parker, a medical sports massage therapist who started practicing herbalism about 15 years ago, said many people get into herbalism through treating their own food as a form of medicine. At Sacred Wheel Herbals, her practice in Old Lyme, she asks patients to track everything they eat for four days as part of their initial consultation. She then uses that information, along with the patient’s medical history, to develop a plan to target the source of the problem rather than the symptoms.

In particular, she said herbalism is popular among women, especially for issues with digestion, the thyroid or the reproductive system.

“It’s more of a work-together situation,” Parker said. “I love to be in partnership with the woman I’m working with.”

Cheryl Speranza of Westerly, who attended Putney’s class with her son Vincent, said she learned about herbalism through an undergraduate internship at a now-defunct store focusing on natural motherhood.

Through further research and attending conferences, she said her knowledge of herbalism has helped her as she finishes her graduate program to become a clinical mental health professional.

“I went to the New England Women’s Herbal Conference, and then I went to another one this year, and every time I go I’m blown away at how amazing that lifestyle is and the knowledge,” she said. “I know I’m going to use the physical model, but I just love how to use plant medicine to help as well.”

Another reason identified by area practitioners for the resurgence of herbal medicine is a desire to try solutions outside contemporary medicine, whether on their own or in conjunction with existing treatments.

Farrah Kaeser, who offers medical botanist services among other holistic specialties through Natural Equilibrium in Groton, said she started researching herbal remedies after she found relief from chronic illness in her late teens only from holistic medicine. She pursued a three-year medical herbalism program to continue her studies.

“[I really wanted] to understand the science behind why the holistic route was more effective for me and a lot of people that I’ve talked to … when you’re dealing with chronic conditions,” she said. “Especially chronic pain conditions, there’s just not a lot of conventional options that are really very effective, and going natural does seem to work better.”

Since training can vary from the self-taught folk or kitchen herbalism to advanced degrees, and information about remedies varies from region to region, practitioners stress the need to seek proper treatment for major conditions and fully research any plant-based treatments before starting them.

Kaeser said her program incorporated both traditional knowledge and modern pharmacology to investigate how herbal treatments can interact with modern medicine. Similarly, Putney went to nursing school to become a registered nurse after attending an herbalism school in New York. 

“There’s so much power in all of the herbs around us, and we can start there as a baseline,” Burns said. “Obviously, if you’re sick, go to the doctor, but if you have a sore throat, why not try licorice root tea first instead of downing a bunch of cough syrup?”



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