Healing With Herbs
Words by Ellie Howard
Five Seasons TCM
With the pandemic came the sharp realisation that prevention is more powerful than any cure. Unlike falling sick, we have more choice over how we care for our bodies. Without a cure on the immediate horizon in those early months, we reached for the comfort of centuries-old herbal treatments to help ease a particularly challenging moment in our shared present.
In 2020, the World Health Organization reported that the demand for medicinal plants and herbal drugs grew by 15%. Albania, with its rolling mountain crops of bright cowslips and hawthorn flowers, exported more than 14,000 tonnes of medicinal and aromatic herbs in the same year. In the USA, herbal supplements surpassed $10 billion. When severe flu had swept across California two years earlier, leading to shortages of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, the plumy fruit of the elderberry worked its wonders. Chinese authorities recommended Qing-Fei-Pai-Du-Tang decoction in treating Covid, while The Health Ministry of Thailand approved green chiretta.
Handed down through generations and across geographies, herbs have been foundational to each culture. It is estimated 60% of the world currently relies on herbs for good health. But in the West, a revival of herbalism has dovetailed with several movements to decolonise global health. Environmental and humanitarian crises are deeply entangled, and one way to find a path towards a just future is in elevating indigenous wisdom as it reconnects with a holistic view of mind, body, and soul within the landscape.
Zoey Xinyi Gong / Five Seasons TCM
At the height of the pandemic, Zoey Gong realised she needed to act. Five Seasons TCM was launched. The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) chef and registered dietitian had been left stumped when clients asked her where to learn more about the herbs she used. ‘Despite the fact it is such a rich, interesting, and beneficial subject,’ she explains, ‘I felt that it was difficult to find good information around TCM food therapy.’
Growing up with her grandparents in Shanghai, Zoey dined on warm herbal chicken bone broths of jujube dates, goji, black wood ear, and ginger. In the dog days of summer, she drank mung bean and mint soup to reduce heat. She writes about generations and generations of inherited nutritional wisdom foundational to Chinese culture, intertwined closely with surrounding nature, ‘TCM ingredients are so common in Chinese cuisine that many of us don’t even realise that they are medicine.’ While she now lives in Brooklyn, in a concrete apartment, she has continued that connection. ‘The natural world taught me to change as it changes,’ she writes, ‘to be aware of myself both physically and emotionally.’ In TCM, spring’s emotional focus is anger, affecting the ‘liver and Gallbladder meridians’. Zoey recommends foods to support their function: ‘Goji is one of my favorite liver tonic herbs.’
For Zoey, Chinese professionals need greater visibility in the media. The micro POC, women-led team behind Five Seasons TCM are united in sharing and modernising traditional food therapies, elevating the Asian community and its practitioners.
Brianna Cherniak / Moss Medicine
With ancestral roots in the Caribbean, Brianna grew up with an innate knowledge of herbalism. But the path to her professional practice came from a desire to share that wisdom. ‘Making herbalism accessible and dissectable is a top priority for me,’ she tells The Floristry.
At Moss Medicine, she encourages the unfolding of the ‘medicine woman’ within each of us. ‘Connecting with my inner healer means disconnecting from societal norms and reconnecting with my body,’ she writes. Reclaiming health is understanding that there are no ‘fast fixes and health band-aids’ – an idea marketed by Western pharmaceutical corporations. True healing takes time and quiet patience, she explains. ‘In a world that lends to chaos and noise,’ she writes, ‘the most powerful thing we can do is be still.’
Studying each plant, its origins and the ancestral rituals that have long celebrated it, is just as important as extracting the beneficial properties found within. ‘Observe how they feel,’ she says, ‘Connecting with herbs in this way allows us to form deeper relationships and also allows for true allyship.’
Starting simple might look like finding herbs to support menstrual cycles. Brianna believes all women should have shatavari, chaste tree berry, and red raspberry leaf in hand. ‘Used individually, these three herbs help to regulate hormones, heal and nourish the reproductive system, eliminates menstrual cramps and aids in rebalancing most ailments women suffer from.’
Photography by Camilla Greenwell for Toast
Photography by Camilla Greenwell for Toast
Maya Thomas / The Modern Herbal
Maya Thomas is a London-based chef, gardener, and writer, who trained in herbology (RBGE) after, as an adrenally burnt-out, anxiety-addled adult in her late 20s, she longed for the ‘fairly feral’ existence she’d known growing up in the countryside. This meant fetching mint, chives and parsley for her mother, [who] is also a chef. ‘That garden was a sanctuary for me,’ she writes, ‘from eating, to the scents of more aromatic herbs, as well as teaching me about flavours and the basics of cooking.’
Her experiences taught her that everything stems from humankind’s relationship with the plant world. She feels that while our connection is inherited, culturally we are not taught to value it so it slips from consciousness. ‘We’ve abused this relationship through an economic system that exploits, rather than valuing sustainability,’ she writes, ‘but we’re learning.’
The Modern Herbal was borne from her many experiences, inspired by ‘many plants and the people that have chosen to live their lives working with them.’ She wanted a place where the herbs are demystified. ‘Very few people understand what the job of a herbalist is, or where we get our herbs from,’ she writes. She encourages budding enthusiasts to explore the landscape surrounding them. ‘It’s really easy to be seduced by the other – something that feels exotic that might be the answer to all your stress issues – a plant that is marketed as a cure-all.’
Like Brianna, she advises starting small and reading about what is advised. She loves the wild bitter greens arriving in the flush spring, dandelion greens, blanched wild chicory, and recommends adding them to salads or pairing with lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. In tandem, these all help support the liver, kidneys, and gut.
‘It’s about using the best of both worlds, allopathic, and traditional plant medicines,’ she explains, ‘to create something truly holistic.’ Avoid understanding herbalism as a trend, she warns, ‘the aspiration should be for us all to be more responsible and active in our own, and our community’s, healthcare.’
Images courtesy of Zoey Gong, Brianna Cherniak & Camilla Greenwell for Toast.