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Flower Power

An herbalist’s guide to medications from the pantry and backyard


Published April 29, 2009 at 5:09 a.m.

How did Peter Rabbit’s mother calm him after his travails with Mr. McGregor? What did the Wicked Witch of the West use to sedate Dorothy and friends?

Chamomile tea and poppies, respectively, points out Laura Brown, owner of Purple Shutter Herbs in Winooski. “That’s just pop culture, and you already know two of the most powerful plants,” she adds.

For some, “herbal medicine” may bring to mind tinctures and sludgy teas prepared like a witch’s brew. But the powers of herbs are mentioned everywhere in our folk culture, from Beatrix Potter to nursery rhymes, and wicked witches aren’t the only ones who use them. Few know that better than Brown, 53, who studied plants in the tales of the Brothers Grimm for her master’s degree in folklore at UCLA.

“My whole background comes from the stories,” says Brown, who eventually left academia to study with a Shoshone medicine woman for two years. Though she opened her shop in Burlington in 1995 (and moved it to Winooski three years ago), she’s been a proponent of treating ills with foraged plants and common spices far longer.

Most importantly, from a cook’s point of view, Brown thinks you can make such homestyle curatives taste good. She teaches classes in medicinal uses for chocolate (“You always knew in your heart it was good for you!”) and offers recipes for turning garden weeds into something palatable. “The truth is, butter and garlic would make cardboard taste good,” Brown insists. So does batter-frying — the basis of her dandelion fritters (see sidebar), a popular springtime treat among clients.

As much as supplements and substances, Brown is selling advice. In the U.K., organic healers like her are certified as homeopathic physicians. With no such status in the U.S., herbalism here is still something of a Wild West. Brown says consumers interested in exploring medicinal blooms should look for a practitioner with peer-approved membership in the American Herbalists Guild.

Her own education started with the medicine woman: “I was really her gofer more than anything,” Brown says. “She taught me a lot about wildcrafting and sitting with the plants and hearing what they have to teach you.” From California, Brown came to Vermont to study plant science under celebrity herbalist Rosemary Gladstar of Barre’s Sage Mountain Retreat Center and Botanical Sanctuary.

Brown’s own shop features 300 jars of herbs from all over the world — strands of Chinese astragalus look like miniature tongue depressors. Whimsical names such as “False Unicorn Root” abound. As customers come and go, many remark on Brown’s new short haircut, which they say brings attention to her deep blue eyes.

Still a folklorist, Brown likes to explain her treatments in historical context. Take those pesky, ubiquitous dandelions — which, she asserts, are liver detoxifiers, as are watercress, sorrels, fiddleheads and ramps. “People would once have been mostly eating jerkies and salt-cured foods in winter,” Brown explains. “The plants that grow in the early spring are almost all very powerful diuretics and very strong immune builders, because they need to transition you from the heavy winter food to the lighter water foods of spring.”

How do you know if a backyard weed will cleanse your liver? A taste should make you scowl. According to the traditional herbalist’s “Doctrine of Signatures” — which dates back to the time of Galen — bitter herbs are liver herbs. Brown points out that plant medicine is fairly intuitive. “Logic also tells you that humans learned from watching the animals,” she says. “If an animal fell down dead after eating something from a bush, you didn’t eat it. But if they ate a bush and got more energy, maybe that’s good for you. It’s kind of true, except never trust a squirrel — their digestive systems are completely different from ours.”

What else can you eat to spruce yourself up this spring? Seven Days sat down with Brown over a cup of her “Petal to the Nettle” tea — featuring detoxifying stinging nettles and hormone-balancing red clover — to find out.

First of all, banish those lingering winter colds. When battling phlegm, says Brown, avoid dairy and sweet citrus. (Since sugars cause mucus to build up, laying off the desserts isn’t a bad idea.) But do reach for lemons, which hold more vitamin C than oranges and won’t exacerbate mucus production. Brown recommends adding peel-on ginger — a trick she learned from her neighbors at Tiny Thai — and cayenne pepper to hot lemonade. Another Southeast Asian treat — lemongrass — has useful antiseptic properties.

In fact, a bowl of sinus-burning tom yum soup may be just what the doctor ordered. Spiciness indicates a circulatory herb, says Brown: “When you get that little bit of sweat between your eyebrows, it tells you that your immune system has just kicked into gear.” Peppermint may also help “supercharge immunity” — and yes, says Brown, it’s a stimulant. She claims a glass of peppermint tea can cause her a sleepless night.

Two staples of winter cooking, sage and thyme, are good for cold and allergy symptoms, too. Visit “any old New England homesteads,” and you’ll find them growing in the remnants of the winter garden, Brown promises. Sage’s Latin name, salvia, means “to heal,” and it’s known for antibacterial and antifungal effects. Thyme is another antiseptic — in fact, it’s one of the active ingredients in Listerine — and can help produce oxytocin, which makes cold sufferers more comfortable.

After months of cabin fever, we may not feel physically or mentally acute. People who sense their grasp of names and dates slipping may want to follow Ophelia’s popular folk recommendation of “rosemary for remembrance.” Brown says the evergreen-like needles have been used as a memory aid since at least the Middle Ages, but recent studies have revealed them to be an effective adjunct treatment for Alzheimer’s.

Marinate a chicken breast or piece of fish in rosemary, garlic and olive oil, and you might just have the perfect brain food. Olive oil helps keep the heart ticking, while garlic, used by the ancient Greeks and Romans as an antibiotic, has been shown in modern times to slow the buildup of arterial plaque.

Of course, with the latter, there’s that small matter of fresh breath. “I had a client whose father had heart disease, but when I suggested garlic, she said he would never eat it. I played around a little and found that if you eat thin slices of garlic with peanut butter in a sandwich, you don’t taste it,” Brown recalls. The patient ate the sandwiches, and his cholesterol started dropping. “The doctor was very impressed and wanted to know what they were doing. [Her father] said, ‘Just good living.’”

Spring is the time when many folks start itching to shed their winter pounds. Brown advises caution. “I find that when you mention herbs and weight loss, people tend to go to the nth degree,” she says. “You can’t look at herbs as a magic bullet.” Instead of using diet aids, she recommends looking to South America for an energy boost. Strong circulatory herbs such as guarana, cola nuts, cinnamon and cloves are favorites to help folks stick to their exercise routines, because, as Brown puts it, “Once the blood is moving, then you’re moving. You’re more flexible and more willing to get up and go!”

At exam time, many students turn to caffeine or less legal stimulants to fuel their all-nighters. Brown has alternatives. For years, she taught a class leading up to finals week where she let kids in on the secret of “Zoom Balls.” Made with guarana and two kinds of ginseng, the chocolaty, nutty treats (see sidebar) are pure herbal crack.

Once, Brown says, a group of her friends took advantage of her absence from the kitchen to indulge in what looked like a batch of cookie batter. Four days later, one large man called her to ask if he would ever sleep again. That’s Zoom Balls for you.

For those who want a shorter-term energy boost, Brown recommends the aforementioned peppermint tea or grapefruit. “I keep grapefruit essence in my car and give my face a quick spritz if I feel my eyes wanting to close on a long drive home,” she says.

But sometimes you need to come down — or treat spring stress — and then the remedy foods are “nervines.” When people crack a cold beer after a long day at work, they aren’t just seeking solace in alcohol, Brown insists. She chalks up the calming effects to the hops, a strong sedative: “When you think about what else goes into beer, you’re looking at barley or oats. You’re drinking all those really calming, relaxing grains.”

Another stress cure isn’t what you’d expect. “People don’t think to cook with catnip at all, but if you can get it away from your cat, it has a very sweet, wonderful taste, and as stimulating as it is for an animal, it does the exact opposite for us,” says Brown, who says the feline favorite tastes like a lemon-mint combo and is great in piccatas or stir fries.

More than anything, Brown recommends that we all listen to our bodies. She cites the tradition of ending the meal with dessert: “Sugar feeds the body, so energy is taken care of and digestion is not as heavy going.”

When you find yourself longing for a hearty stew packed with thyme, a light spring salad or a hoppy beer, you may be responding to ancient cues, Brown concludes. “Because of our history, people know that we have allies within the plants and can access that information without even knowing why we’re accessing it. When people look at what they’re craving, oftentimes it’s something their body needs.”

Wake up and smell the peppermint tea … herbs aren’t just for hippies, and they never were.