BAYFIELD – Sitting in a circle in a classroom, nine women spent seven minutes silently sipping a tea. With each slow gulp, they gauged how the medicinal tea affected their bodies.
The community members gathered from across La Plata County on Tuesday to take part in the first class in the “Getting to Know a Local Plant” herbal medicine series at Pine River Shares.
The classes are part of the Field to Fork Project, facilitated at Pine River Shares, which focuses on creating a sustainable local food system. In each class, community members learn about one herbal plant and explore its medicinal properties, guided by a clinical herbalist. During the first session, the community of plant lovers also forged new connections.
“It’s educational to do it on your own and to learn the herbs individually on your own, but it’s also really good to get the collective input,” said Kate Husted, a clinical herbalist who has been practicing for about five years, “to see what everybody else is feeling, too.”
During the class, the participants tasted the “mystery” tea then tried to guess which herb they tasted based on their physical reactions.
Husted said medicinal plants can result in a variety of reactions. Some plants give a warming or a cooling feeling. Others feel slimy and can coat the throat, or suck moisture from the mouth.
During the body awareness and drinking exercise, she encouraged participants to pay attention to their heart rate, energy levels, respiratory system, skin and even what part of the tongue sensed the tea’s taste.
The herb of the night, elder, has berries and flowers with medicinal properties. Elder, especially its blue or black berries, is most well-known for its antiviral and immune boosting properties, Husted said. People can use the berries to make elixirs, tinctures and syrups.
“It gets used really commonly in preventing the flu or when you have an acute case of the flu,” she said. “I thought it was an appropriate thing to talk about today because the flu is just way up in the news.”
The elder flower, which formed the base of the tea, has some of the same properties. The flowers also help bring down unhealthy fevers, help respiratory issues and improve skin and hair health. People can brew teas and make hair rinses or herbal baths.
However, beginners should always go with an experienced herbalist when looking for herbs. The local elder, Samucus racemosa, makes red berries, which are toxic.
Husted was careful to point out herbalists cannot write prescriptions or make treatment recommendations. The United States does not have an accredited degree structure for herbalists as it does for medical doctors.
Herbal remedies also don’t work like prescription medicine. Different people react to them differently, so an herb does not always guarantee a result. Instead, herbalists focus on highly personalized remedies based on extensive intake interviews.
“When we do that, it helps us intelligently be a matchmaker between plants and people,” Husted said. “The more information you can collect about a person’s constitution or their life circumstances, the better you’re going to be able to pick a specific plant.”
For many in the room, the class was the first time they had focused so intently on their physical reactions to an herb.
“(The drinking exercise) is new, so it’s something else we’ve picked up,” said Jeri Trausch, a resident south of Durango. “There’s so much to learn.”
“I think it’s just great information,” said Alexis Hartz, a Bayfield resident. “Why aren’t we using what’s right under our foot instead of what’s on the shelf?”
The classes will continue once a month, on the third Tuesday, until July.