As long as herbs have grown, their cultivation, gathering, preparation and sharing have synergized a kind of grassroots movement, spurred by neighbor helping neighbor and “hyped” by word of mouth. Herbalism goes back thousands of years, to early healers and mystics, although in the last century or so, its purpose was obscured and its practice frequently misunderstood.

“I’ve been working as an herbalist for nearly 25 years, and one of the things I hear more than anything else is people don’t know what [herbalism] means,” says Lupo Passero of Twin Star, a New Milford-based apothecary and school of herbal and energetic arts. “They either think I grow cannabis for a living or that I’m a naturopathic or homeopathic doctor, which I don’t and I’m not. There’s a lot of confusion about what an herbalist is.”

Better Together

According to the American Herbalist Guild, herbalists are people who dedicate their lives to working with medicinal plants. They include, but are not limited to, native healers, scientists, naturopaths, holistic medical doctors, researchers, writers, herbal pharmacists, medicine makers, wild crafters, harvesters, herbal farmers and possibly your own grandmother.

The scope of related vocations makes sense when you realize how many of their tools are rooted in the soil under our very feet. Joan Palmer, a nutritionist and community herbalist, found the connections intriguing; the symbiosis of food, health, health, healing and lifestyle motivated her to start The Institute Of Sustainable Nutrition in West Granby. She had completed her degree in human nutrition, but felt that her course of study, and many like it, focused narrowly on a statistic of what food is.

I was really frustrated because I knew that the nutrients found in a carrot are not the same if they are grown with chemicals in lifeless soil as opposed to being grown by sustainable, regenerative gardening practices,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t talk about nutrition and not also talk about the health of the soil, herbs, and what grows in our area, both wild and cultivated. From there it became a whole picture of sustainability.”

The one-year certificate program Palmer developed around sustainable nutrition takes her students on a journey from science to gardening and foraging, to culinary skills like fermentation, to herbalism, preparing healing remedies, and even mixing up their own cleaning and body care products. While some students attend to round out their professions, many more attend to educate themselves on sustainable practices to improve their well-being. “This is truly a community movement,” she says.

Back to Basics

Herbalism fell out of favor about 100 years ago, but there’s been a resurgence in people returning to the earth, beginning with the counter-culture of the ‘60s and increasing since, especially during the past decade.

Passero, an herbalist, educator and flower essence practitioner, was inspired by her grandmother, who was born in Italy and spent her life as a homesteader who wildcrafted her own plants and grew a lot of her own medicines. “She was raised with the old-world ideology of finding your food and medicine in your own backyard,” says Passero.

Since Twin Star opened 10 years ago, Passero has seen interest in the field grow and, at any given time, there are around 150 students enrolled in classes and programs. Students—those who attend one-off, drop-in seminars as well as those who attend programs lasting nine months to three years—learn all aspects of herbalism, including how to identify plants, work with them to brew herbal remedies, and then get the plants into the hands of people who need them.

Local herbalists say they see many people seeking support for mood disorders, anxiety, depression, inflammation and reproductive and fertility issues. One of the most popular reasons for seeing an herbalist is to find natural treatments for colds and flu and first aid, as well as beauty and skin care.

“The thing I feel most passionate about is helping people remember that this is what our ancestors have done from the very beginning…that keeps me inspired every day. And seeing people get well, in a time where so many people’s needs are not being met by the current medical system, particularly the millions of folks that do not have insurance,” says Passero.“They can come into the apothecary with $2 in their pocket, and I can scoop out $2 worth of the dried herbs and send them home to make their teas and help them be well. It’s really an affordable way to give access to proper health care to all.”

Helpful Healing

Gayle Nogas, a master herbalist, longstanding member of the Connecticut Herb Association, and a member of Northeast Herbal Association, began her journey to herbalism more than 25 years ago while searching for relief from anxiety and panic attacks.

“The only answer at that time was, ‘Here are some tranquilizers, just go home and get drugged up and you’ll be fine.’ As a single mom raising three kids, I didn’t have time to be drugged up and in Lalaland,” she remembers.

One day, she attended a luncheon at Caprilands Herb Farm in Coventry, where a leading figure of herbalism (and the farm’s owner)—Adelma Simmons—was speaking. Simmons, who died in 1997, was one of the leading herbalists of the 20thcentury. Caprilands was her family farm and she made her first attempt to grow vegetables there while raising goats. Goat farming didn’t pay the bills, however, and her early attempts at growing crops failed due to the rocky soil. Eventually, she tried her hand at herbs, and the farm flourished. She left her entire estate to the Caprilands Institute, a nonprofit educational organization that furthered her research in herbs, plants and flowers.

“Adelma started talking about medicinal herbs for relaxation, and that just opened up the whole door to everything,” says Nogas. “I bought all her books, went there as often as I could and learned everything I could from her lectures. I realized the doctors could take their prescriptions and shove them because I didn’t need them; I had alternatives.”

Nogas opened her own herb shop in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts and soon banded together with like-minded enthusiasts to start the Connecticut Herb Association (CHA). The group’s primary goal is to educate and share the diverse world of herbs with one another and throughout the state, as well as compiling a local network of herb-related resources. They do so by hosting a monthly medicinal herb study group and events focused on topics like plant spirit medicine, bitters recipes, product swaps, plant propagation and more.

Nogas says she is seeing an uptick in interest in herbs and herbal medicine, and the group’s membership is diverse in age and background. Young mothers, in particular, have been seeking out the group’s resources, as they look for a more natural, healthy way of bringing up their babies: “They’re making their own baby foods and cleaning products. We’re all realizing now that we’re being poisoned, and young mothers don’t want to raise their kids like that.”

Palmer, who reminds her students that “food can be medicine, too,” agrees that an interest in sustainable nutrition and herbalism takes many forms, and doesn’t always stem from furthering oneself in a health-related career: “We have people that just want to make changes in their lives, that just want to bring this to their families, people who have health issues, teachers who want to share with their students, carpenters even—people from all careers and all walks of life. They just want to improve their well-being and the environment.”

One Giant Leaf for Mankind

What kind of impact could herbalism have on a community if more people took an interest? “I think it would have an empowering impact, to be able to take care of yourself and your family, to support vitality and longevity, and to have a more healthful lifestyle,” says Passero.

Similarly, Palmer believes sustainable nutrition could be the much-needed salve to boost overall mood, health and outlook, a hope that drives her mission every day. “The impact could be significant. I know we’d be healthier. I think we’d be happier. I think this epidemic of anxiety and depression, even now with our young children, a big piece of it is diet- and chemical-related. This information is paramount to health and happiness. I think we are seeing behavior, mood, health in general being impacted by our food and our environment.”

Patricia Staino is a freelance writer and editor living in North Carolina, who is also the managing editor of Natural Awakenings’ Fairfield County/Housatonic Valley and Greater Hartford editions.

Photo credit: CamilleWhite/