An Interview with Doreen Shababy

1. Your new book, The Wild & Weedy Apothecary, is a compendium of uses for herbs. I know about using herbs in my kitchen, but what else can I use them for?

One thing I love about herbs is their variety, and growing them simply to beautify your yard or patio is an excellent way to use them. Looking at the colors and textures, inhaling the fabulous aromas, gives one a feeling of vibrancy. Most common herbs are easy to grow, and a well-established, locally-owned nursery should have an informed staff to help you with growing requirements.

Since herbs have been used externally on the hair and skin since time began, there’s no reason to stop now. Whether you’re applying a chickweed poultice to a yellow jacket sting, or pouring a sage leaf decoction over your gloriously graying hair, herbs are a readily available alternative to most over-the-counter preparations. They can sometimes be a messy alternative, and more time-consuming, but they cause few side effects (when used accordingly) and are certainly much more fun.

Herbs can take us in a slower, perhaps more thoughtful direction. Most of the herbal remedies mentioned in The Wild & Weedy Apothecary make use of simple tea blends for symptoms such as sore throat or clogged sinuses or menstrual cramps. Herb tea, and the preparation of it, is a gentle, enjoyable way to nurture yourself and others, and perhaps that is the very best medicine of all.

2. Can all the herbs mentioned in your book be personally grown or easily acquired? From where do you recommend readers procure their herbs?

Most of the herbs and plants mentioned in The Wild & Weedy Apothecary can be grown in temperate climate zones, with obvious exceptions such as almonds and sandalwood and nutmeg. However, these are easily obtained in natural food stores, most grocery or specialty grocery stores, or online as mail order—and I heartily stress quality over quantity.

Some of the herbs and plants mentioned throughout the book, such as elderberry and yarrow, are wild or naturalized and fairly widespread, and can be foraged. I have emphasized wild plants that grow in my own twenty-acre “backyard” but some of these plants are so common that they will likely be in your backyard too.

There are loads of other plants mentioned in the book as well, food plants that is, and peppers and tomatoes and limes are certainly obtainable even at the corner grocery. But if you can grow your own, then by all means! Farmer’s markets are the next best thing to homegrown, and usually far surpass even the best organic produce at the store.

3. I’m a novice when it comes to gardening. Am I going to have difficulty gathering my herbs or identifying potentially harmful plants?

If you are new to gardening and would like to learn more, your county extension Master Gardener’s program is a good resource. There you can consult with someone who knows the best plants to grow for your particular area, and they’ll also point you to the best guidebooks for the region (Llewellyn author Ellen Dugan is a Master Gardener). I advise you to seek out a locally owned, well-established nursery for the best plants and the best advice. Both the master gardener and the nursery staff should be able to give you a list of poisonous plants—and if they can’t, go somewhere else.

As for identifying wild plants (and potentially harmful ones) you can look up a regional native plant society, or your library, for appropriate field guides for your area. University and USFS (Forest Service) presses often have this type of literature in print as well.

For me, gardening engages the use of body, mind and spirit, all three… A little elbow grease (well, maybe a lot depending on your motivation)—Body. Mapping out the best location for each plant—Mind. Nurturing the seedlings as you tenderly set them out—Spirit. Eating salads from your backyard all summer—Priceless. For me, the rewards of gardening are beyond words. As for the weeds, well, most of them are friendly, if not downright useful; they just need a little guidance.

If you’re not into gardening, hey, that’s okay too. The above suggestions are still valid even if you buy your herbs from mail order or from the farmer’s market. You still need to educate yourself as to their use from a variety of sources. That’s one reason I included an extensive bibliography in my book, to give you, the reader, a wide variety of resources for information.

In a way, the “green movement” of the new millennium is an upstart trend compared to the “back to the land” thing from the 60s and 70s. Environmentalist pioneers such Rachel Carson and Robert Rodale inspired folks from all walks of life to consider their impact on the planet; even our great-grandparents knew to save their kitchen scraps for compost. Organic gardening is in our DNA!

4. The Wild & Weedy Apothecary truly does cover every herb, from Allium to Zest. How did you gather your “wild and weedy” knowledge?

If The Wild & Weedy Apothecary truly covered every herb, it would be an unwieldy behemoth and I would be a walking encyclopedia. Honestly. I spent a lot of time talking to neighbors and homemakers, forest biologists, old ranchers, mountain men, and then some, and everyone had something to say about herbal remedies. I have read literally hundreds of books on herbalism and wildflowers and native plants and natural healing; some books were more informative than others. In addition, to quote the late great Euell Gibbons, I have been hunting and gathering the wild asparagus (amongst other good things to eat) for decades, but the knowledge came to me mostly in baby steps, and mostly out of sheer curiosity. This would include cooking skills as well.

I want to point out that this is not a book about medical herbalism, nor is it a plant identification guide, but rather a personal meandering through our collective experience with herbs and the various ways they can be used in and on our bodies as well as in and around our homes. Creating the book was great fun, but not nearly as fun as the cooking or concocting of the herbal and food creations themselves. I have always loved the idea of self-sufficiency, loved my home in northern Idaho, and loved cooking and eating good food. I have lived rurally for decades, learning from friends, neighbors, and the land itself. So far, I’ve never run out of subject matter, because the bottom line is, I’m still learning.

5. With rising awareness of homeopathy and naturopathic medicine (not to mention the rising costs of allopathic healthcare), herbalism is becoming more widely practiced and accepted. What makes herbs so beneficial?

Herbalism and other natural alternatives to allopathic medicine are beneficial in many ways. Cost is one of them, but, in my opinion, not the most important. If you can wildcraft (a trendy buzzword meaning gathered from the wild) or grow healing plants, you have assured the quality of everything, from deciding the best time to pick and the most ideal way to process specific plant parts, to administering doses appropriately to the needy individual. This assumes, and not too lightly, that you have educated yourself about the uses and abuses of a given herb, and the condition you’re dealing with, which is of utmost importance.

When used accordingly, herbs generally have fewer negative side effects than pharmaceutical drugs. I’m astonished at television and magazine ads for these drugs, depicting the lifestyle you too could have if you can get your doctor-deity to prescribe them for you; if you continue listening to the ad, you’ll learn that the side effects are often worse than what the drug is supposed to treat! I’m not saying a person should stop taking insulin for diabetes and go on a blueberry leaf and dandelion regimen, just that many drugs are still in the experimental stage compared to millennia of proven, effective herbal and other natural treatments such as massage and acupuncture. Whereas pharmaceuticals rely on derivatives or singular components for their activity, herbs work synergistically, with all their components in unison. Herbs offer a holistic approach to healing.

Another very good reason to use herbs is that they really work! Grandma’s Magic Healing Salve (page 145 of The Wild & Weedy Apothecary) really does facilitate the healing of scrapes and bruises. Peppermint tea is an excellent remedy for indigestion (so are Altoids). And using herbs because of their varied and wonderful flavors and aromas is certainly encouraged. We should want our food to smell and taste good.

Let me make it clear though, you can’t just go using herbs for “medical medicine” without doing your homework, beginning with a correct diagnosis of the condition in question. Be choosey about the source of your herbs. Try to use plants that would grow where you live, or grow them yourself. Herbalist Susun Weed suggests you get to know one plant at a time for the full course of a year, forming a relationship with it. I think this is an excellent way to learn about herbs, especially one that you are particularly attracted to, one that “calls” to you. Go ahead and plant an assortment of basil varieties for culinary use, but be smart about using herbs for specific, chronic medical conditions.

6. What do I need to know before embarking on my own herbal journey?

As mentioned above, getting to know one plant intimately throughout the seasons is an excellent way to begin an herbal journey. Most of us want to take in a little more along the way in terms of time, so to speak, so perhaps you will want to study one plant family at a time, such as…thymes! There are several species and varieties to feast your eyes on as well as your taste buds, and supply your first aid kit, too. What about the mints? Getting to know pineapple mint and eau de cologne mint as well as spearmint and peppermint is a joyous olfactory sensation. Or perhaps you want to explore the herbal healing traditions of your Native American ancestors. Whatever your motivation, there’s a path just waiting for you to take a step.

Another recommendation for those headed off the beaten path is to keep a journal, whether for gardening, hiking or whatever; just be sure to keep notes of your discoveries, the tasty dishes you create, and the herbal concoctions you brew up. This journal will become a valuable, and sometimes humorous, tool for the future. Plus, your grandkids or someone will appreciate it long after you’re gone, trust me.

While we all put our own spin on things, the “average” herb enthusiast might be described as having a generally healthy curiosity, a willingness to try new ideas, and an inclination for outdoor activity. They check out stacks of garden and cookery books from the library (when they’re not haunting used bookstores), and they like to talk about herbs with other enthusiasts. They bike past remarkable gardens on their way home from work, past fragrant rose bushes and towering sunflowers, even if it’s out of the way. They enjoy learning the Latin and Greek names of a plant, and they also like garter snakes. They avoid doctors, mass-produced immunizations and the common cold by eating lots of garlic and fresh herbs, and less take-out and packaged food. They laugh a lot. They love a lot, and they love life. I think maybe I’m describing myself here!

Just to keep things in balance, lest you think I never eat biscuits and gravy or Snickers bars, let me quote a near and dear to-my-heart teacher, who once said, “Excess in moderation, young grasshopper.” We do the best we can.

About Doreen Shababy

Doreen Shababy (Idaho) spends her days gardening, writing, cooking, and crafting. Her writing has appeared in several publications, and she self-published a quarterly called Wild & Weedy: A Journal of Herbology ...

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