Herbalistas

10th April 2019

For centuries women have turned to herbs for everything from cooking and housewifery to childbirth and folk cures. As research increasingly shows a scientific basis for these “old wives’ tales”, a new generation of women are championing their efficacy.

Words by Charlotte Hogarth-Jones

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The use herbs in cooking and therapies may be timeless, but it’s having quite a moment in 2019. Herbs and botanicals are everywhere, whether in beauty products, health supplements, books – or gin. And at the forefront of the trend is a new wave of herbal enthusiasts – growers, writers, makers and campaigners – many of them women, aiming to re-educate us in the almost magical properties of these plants. Most exciting of all, much of the folk wisdom about the power of herbs is increasingly supported by the latest scientific thinking.

Today, we think of herbal remedies as alternative, but for centuries the plants around us were our only option for medicinal care – apart from magic. Archeological evidence reveals the use of herbs as treatments way back into prehistory, and they appear in writings across the ancient world, from the Greek Hippocrates to the Roman Pliny, and the Indian authors of the early Ayurvedic texts.

For centuries, men had the exclusive voice of authority in medicine. Yet there was often a parallel network of women keeping herbal traditions alive, from nuns working the convent gardens of Catholic Europe to village “wise women” the world over. Their work was complex and sometimes the line between herbal medicine and hocus-pocus wasn’t entirely clear. So if crops failed and misfortune arrived, such women became an easy target, and many in England would be persecuted as witches. Yet their knowledge was vital in a pre-scientific society.

The advent of printing in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries encouraged a flurry of “herbals” – books seeking to define the qualities and uses of herbs. Published in 1551, William Turner’s A Newe Herball – the first herbal to be published in English – can be seen in part as an attempt to wrest the masculine science of herbalism from feminine superstition, so that readers need not find themselves, as Turner put it, “trustinge only to the olde herbe wives.” 

This is surely part of a broader shift in the culture, in which all things organic and natural are seen as benign, while the industrial is no longer to be trusted.

In time, however, women herbalists also documented their knowledge, from Elizabeth Blackwell, who produced her hand-drawn, engraved and coloured A Curious Herbal in 1737, to Maude Grieve, who sought to educate the public on the healing power of plants when medical supplies ran low during World War I, publishing A Modern Herbal, Volumes I & II, which remains a respected text today.

That herbs might be something we turn to even when conventional medicines are available is a recent phenomenon – as what was deemed alternative or hippy becomes more mainstream. This is surely part of a broader shift in the culture, in which all things organic and natural are seen as benign, while the industrial is no longer to be trusted. And the scientific world is now realising that those “old herbe wives” might have been on to something. 

Recent studies have shown that rosemary – long prescribed by herbalists for memory loss – does seem to improve memory, acting in the same way as the current drugs that are prescribed to treat dementia. Meanwhile, Chinese research showed that thyme oil inhibited some cancer cells and showed strong cytotoxic (toxic to cells) properties against some prostate and lung cancer cells. 

The conditions are perfect, then, to revive our old herbal traditions, combining time-honoured remedies with sophisticated modern research. And once again, women are at the forefront of a broad movement exploring and championing the diverse ways herbs can improve life. Let’s meet some of these – the new herbalistas. 

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Anna Greenland, 37
THE GROWER HERBALISTA

“Being into herbs is super-trendy now,” says organic grower and herb consultant Anna Greenland. “‘Botanical’ has become a bit of a buzzword, remedies are all over Instagram, and I’ve even been asked to do some consultancy for drinks companies that want to liven up their products. But when I got into herbs about ten years ago, people were asking, ‘Oh my god, what’s happened to Anna, is she OK?’ It was like I’d lost my way somehow.” 

Greenland came to herbalism by chance, when, at the age of 23, she moved to a cottage on the north coast of Cornwall to live with her surfer boyfriend. “I worked for a local radio station, which wasn’t very exciting, and we had a little garden, so I started playing around with growing stuff, just for us.” Shortly afterwards, in 2006, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant, Fifteen Cornwall, launched in the area, and Greenland started doing waitressing shifts there. “One day I was talking to people at work about what I was growing, and I asked if they would consider taking some of it. They said yes and from then on I just got the bug.”

Greenland would work in her garden during the day, harvest for the restaurant in the evening, and then serve her produce to customers that night. Soon she was tasked with creating a large-scale herb garden for Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, and she went on to consult for big-name chefs such as Tom Aikens and Raymond Blanc.

“As well as the health benefits, I began to understand the sensory value of plants,” she says. “People would be walking through the gardens at Soho Farmhouse and smell or touch the plants. When I did a herb garden at Hampton Court last year it was the same; there was a huge amount of interest in a tiny little patch – people just didn’t realise how beautiful herb gardens could be.”

Today, Greenland runs workshops all over the country, attracting everyone from older locals to a trendy urban crowd – arguably more keen on “making nice Christmas presents for people” than pursuing herbalism as a longterm life choice. “I do think our generation is going back to a lot of homestead-y stuff,” she says. “Fermenting, pickling, foraging… there’s a definite desire to get back to our roots. It’s a natural reaction to the unhealthy culture that’s built up, especially as it’s increasingly clear that the drugs don’t always work. If you look at the old herbals, the remedies were essentially food: mainly things like nourishing broths or stews with a lots of herbs – and that’s something that’s still so easy to do today.”

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Maya Thomas, 36
THE ACTIVIST HERBALISTA

“I was in my late twenties, living in London, and struggling with life,” explains Maya Thomas, a selfconfessed “herb evangelist” who came to herbalism after suffering from a bout of ill-health. “I had hormonal imbalances, polycystic ovary syndrome, general fatigue, and I was told I could either go on antidepressants or the pill. For me, those things aren’t a cure – they just mask the symptoms, so I started to look into the alternatives.”

Thomas tried everything from reiki to acupuncture before making the decision to move up to live on a Scottish estate in East Lothian that historically had belonged to the Balfours (Eve Balfour was a founder of the Soil Association), so perhaps it was inevitable that she would eventually turn her attention to the earth.

“My mum’s Sri Lankan and growing up in the countryside she’d always believed that herbs were the cornerstone of every good meal,” she says. “Her herb garden had been a place of sanctuary for me as a kid, and as I began experimenting with my own I realised that I was reconnecting with nature – and healing myself of something deeper.” It wasn’t long before she had embarked on a course in Edinburgh under the tutelage of herbal pioneer Catherine Conway-Payne. “Before I even had my interview, I knew what I wanted to do,” she explains. “I wanted to focus on endochronic health and herbs for women. I did that and it changed my life.”

Today, Thomas describes herself as being part a “herbal network” of people who are passionate about herbs, and she has worked across a plethora of projects – with beauty brand Weleda, spending time at the Chelsea Physic Garden and more recently at Ballymoe’s celebrated cookery school. Next up for Thomas: writing a culinary history of herbs with Anna Greenland (see previous page), launching a podcast (which she is calling The Modern Herbal in a nod to Maude Grieve), and giving a series of lectures at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – designed to reclaim women’s leading role in the historical herbalist canon.

“It’s time to give women their rightful place in the history of herbalism,” Thomas insists. “Both those who had access to formal education and those that simply kept the tradition alive through their traditional role as nurturers and carers in their communities.” Thomas believes that for herbal medicine to be most effective, we need to move away from the modern approach of looking for a “quick fix”. Herbs work for different people in different ways, and incorporating them into your regular diet is the easiest way to use them. “I make herbal pestos, herbal teas,” she explains. “When I feel a bit of a cough coming on I start mainlining sage tea like it’s going out of fashion.”

But despite her belief in the healing power of herbs, Thomas is also quick to recognise their limitations. “People who get into herbal medicine often go through a stage of thinking modern medicine and Big Pharma are awful,” she says. “But I always say that if you get hit by a double-decker bus, no amount of comfrey is going to help you! We need to marry both these elements, so if someone is suffering from, say, depression, then you can take a two-pronged approach to treatment.”

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Nat Mady, 31
THE URBAN HERBALISTA

Unlike Thomas and Greenland, Nat Mady came to herbalism via an urban environment. “I was moving in with some friends in Hackney and we wanted to meet people in the area,” she says, explaining how she came to join the local community garden. “At that time I was working full-time as a structural engineer, but in my spare time I started to get involved, and I began to understand how beneficial those spaces were to other people.”

The gardening crowd was a mixed one – couples with children, elderly people – and an incredible range of herbs was grown, thanks to the variety of different nationalities tending plots. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” says Mady, “but we managed to get some funding to run workshops, and there was a lot of excitement around that.” Hackney Herbal, as it was called, had begun, and soon the local council began to notice the benefits, not only of people learning how to self-medicate, how to create products and use them for their health, and how to swap different cultural remedies, but also of attendees spending time in the fresh air, and having positive social interactions. Mady and others began to dry the herbs and sell them to a local café as teas, and by 2014 she was ready to leave her job and take the classes to a wider audience.

“My mum is a biology teacher and my dad is a doctor, and I think he thought, ‘Let’s see how long this lasts,’” she says. “He’s from Egypt and even now I have strong memories of his mother giving me chamomile and fennel tea as a child, so this knowledge is in his culture, too – even if I have to tease it out of him. They’re really supportive now – I think the concept of a social enterprise is quite new, and it’s harder for their generation to grasp.”

Hackney Herbal now runs six-week classes at the Hackney Centre for Better Health, a community hub where people with mental health problems can attend courses on everything from art therapy to yoga and ceramics. Attendees at Hackney Herbal classes learn a variety of skills, including how to make herbal teas and their various properties (digestion, respiratory, congestion); how to make herbal bandages by rubbing yarrow, which can help with healing and blood clotting, into wounds, and then wrapping them up with plantain leaves; how to make a cough syrup and an antibacterial cleaning product. 

“The feedback we get is always really good,” she says. “People get really excited by making things themselves that they can take home – what they’re learning is good for their health, and they’re also building relationships with others over the past six weeks. They can have a rough day, and come to the course, and know that they’ve achieved something – we’re trying to remove the myth that you have to be really qualified to do this stuff.”

Hackney Herbal’s courses are now oversubscribed, and the group now runs private ticketed workshops for brands, with profits going towards keeping their mental health courses free and their public event ticket prices down. “The most important thing,” says Mady, “is that people are starting to challenge the received wisdom, whether it’s from politicians or doctors, about what is and isn’t healthy. They’re also starting to turn against instant gratification in favour of achievements that can take a lot longer, but are ultimately more rewarding.”

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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