Allison Austin grew up in a rural environment near Dayton, Minnesota. As a 7-year-old, she spent hours crushing herbs and making potions for fun. By fourth grade she knew she wanted to work with plants as a profession.
Jaime Brennan grew up in a farming family in western New York State. She enjoyed being among the rows of fruits and vegetables, but her favorite activity was walking in the forested property between crop fields. At age six she asked her mother to tell her the name of every plant she saw. Her mother gave her “The Golden Guide to Wildflowers” as a Valentine’s Day gift.
Austin and Brennan both studied botany and horticulture in college, but academics didn’t answer the questions that most interested them. They sought teachers whose hands were dirty from digging and harvesting, whose lessons involved more plants than books, whose classrooms were meadows, wetlands, woods, and kitchens.
They began to understand that the plants are teachers; the human instructors only guides.
Brennan completed an apprenticeship with renowned herbalist Rosemary Gladstar at Sage Mountain in Vermont. Austin spent three years learning from a Mayan herbalist who practiced traditional uses of medicinal plants.
Now, the women both teach the benefits of plant healing. They teach which leaves and flowers can be added to salads, or eaten after steaming or sautéing. They teach that to extract the medicinal components, it is sometimes necessary to break down the cell walls. This can be done by heat, as in making a tea or infusion, or by soaking the plant in alcohol or vinegar to make a tincture. Poultices and salves can be made for topical applications.
Yarrow is a favorite of both Austin and Brennan. Its fern-like leaves can be crushed and applied directly to bruises, bug bites, rashes, and everyday scrapes and cuts. In a tea or tincture, yarrow has traditionally been used to reduce fever and stop internal bleeding.
Plantain, sometimes called “nature’s band-aid,” has similar qualities for addressing wounds and bug bites, and has been used to draw out slivers. Plantain tea or tincture is reputed to be good for the urinary tract.
Austin uses red clover leaves and flowers, and red raspberry leaves harvested just before the plant sets berries, in order to make herbal preparations for maintaining health of the female system, balancing hormones, and as a source of minerals and vitamins. Both are cleansing herbs, safe for children, and can be combined to increase their benefits. She suggests drinking a daily cup of tea made from steeping the herbal parts in hot water for ten minutes.
Brennan has worked with cleavers (of the genus Galium) for breast health and the lymph system. She uses it to make tea during the summer, or as a tincture that can be used all year. It can be infused in olive oil and used for massage, or as a poultice on congested lymph areas. The plants are edible when young.
Many of the most beneficial plants are often considered weeds. Even if you weren’t a plant-lover in elementary school, like Austin and Brennan, you can take classes from herbalists and begin to reap the health benefits.