When fresh herbs meet fresh food, a field of healing and flavor opens up. Lancaster Farmacy is showing the way.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Elisa Ludwig

LANCASTER – Elisabeth Weaver bent down to rub the serrated leaves of a holy basil plant as she toured the acre of blooming herbs she has nurtured from seedlings: “This is one of my favorites,” she says, offering up the leaf and its residual scent – green, spicy, almost fruity.

“It’s a great digestive and it also lifts mood,” Weaver explains. “People used to be really hot on Saint-John’s-wort, but holy basil – it’s also called tulsi – has taken its place as a natural antidepressant.”

As a new initiative that’s part of the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, Weaver and her partner, Casey Spacht, are growing medicinal herbs and selling them through the co-op’s farm stands and four-season buying club, under the aegis of Lancaster Farmacy.

Subscribers to Farmacy, one of a growing number of health-focused CSAs (community supported agriculture) around the country, pay in advance for weekly shares of herbs and products. Similar programs have popped up in Massachusetts, New York, and California, reflecting an increasing national interest in herbalism.

The Medicinal Plant Working Group, part of the Plant Conservation Alliance, estimates that the market for medicinal herbs is more than $3 billion a year and that 60 million people in the United States now take herbal remedies.

What’s occasionally lost in the modern strains of herbalism, with all its capsulized supplements, are the folk remedies that combine herbs with food, drawing on their natural affinities and flavors to make the “medicine” more palatable.

Lancaster Farmacy literally brings the practice back to its most organic roots, encouraging people to use only the freshest herbs and integrate the medicine cabinet with the kitchen.

“Traditionally, lots of herbs have been used in cooking as a way of turning food into medicine,” says Marie Winters, herbalist at Two Rivers Naturopathy in Philadelphia.

“You still get their medicinal qualities when they’re prepared with food,” Winters says. “With my own clients I always recommend they eat their herbs fresh as opposed to taking a pill,” she says. “It’s unfortunate, but some people are more willing to take vitamins than the herbs which have been used for thousands of years and are proven to work.”

When Weaver and Spacht came up with the idea for Farmacy last fall they saw it as a natural extension of the eat-local movement.

“Everybody’s getting into local food and we wanted to do something to make a difference and fill in a void,” says Spacht, who is the manager of Lancaster Farm Fresh and a onetime vegan pastry chef. “We’re both into medicinal herbs, wild plants, and foraging, so it’s really a no-brainer.”

The land was nearly in full bloom on a hot late-June day, with purple, white, and orange flowers exploding in great bunches. Weaver pointed out a banquet of plants and their uses: chamomile (calming, digestive aid), hyssop (expectorant), calendula (stomach and skin soothing), three kinds of bergamot (soothing, sleep aid, lowers fevers), yarrow (known as “nature’s stitches”). There were descriptively named herbs like boneset and feverfew, and numbing buds of spilanthes, also known as Szechuan buttons, which can be used in place of novocaine.

Weaver herself has used herbs since she was a teenager, and over the years she has apprenticed with herb farmers and herbalists to learn more about growing practices and applications. “I’ve always been interested in the healing arts, whether that’s through visual art, music, or now herbs,” she says. “But I’m also interested in knowing where my food and herbs come from.”

The pair secured land at an area asparagus farm called Gypsy Hill (in order to qualify for Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, they had to find certified organic farmland, something of a challenge).

Within months they had seedlings and an early base of about 25 subscribers, though they’re leaving a pro-rated registration open throughout the 20-week season.

For a $225 fee ($130 for a half-share), subscribers receive two to three items weekly, typically a combination of fresh herbs, dried herbs, and prepared products like teas, tonics, salves, balms, and soaps, plus a culinary recipe for using the herbs, like Spacht’s chamomile pancakes. They will also be making whole plants available for members interested in propagating and harvesting their own herbs.

There are unexpected culinary uses for many of the medicinal herbs in the Farmacy arsenal. The roots of evening primrose (thought to help balance hormones and a source of good fatty acids) can be prepared as tubers and are delicious, Weaver says, when sliced and fried in oil.

While many chefs employ borage leaves for their cucumber flavor, Weaver says she has seen the sweeter blue borage flowers frozen into ice cubes, and served in a lambic ale in a Massachusetts cafe. The globular okralike pods of milkweed (known for its use as an expectorant and stomach tonic) make a crunchy addition to a stir-fry.

“What’s fascinating about herbs is that they usually do one thing internally and another thing externally,” Weaver says.

Incorporating more exotic herbs into food not only offers health benefits but also stimulates the taste buds with new flavors. Winters likes to add chamomile and lavender to sweet foods, infusing cream or butter in baking. Calendula’s orange petals can be tossed into salads and eggs or used as a substitute for saffron in a Middle Eastern pilaf. Spacht adds it to his gazpacho for a vibrant punch of color and subtle bittersweet flavor.

Weaver’s favorite, holy basil, is a natural with Thai cooking, but it can also be used in place of traditional basil in summery tomato mozzarella salads. Young yarrow leaves make nice salad greens. Bergamots vary in their flavor, but their flowers and leaves can be substituted for sage for an aromatic twist on meat dishes.

Naturally, the possibilities for using herbs in teas are almost endless. Weaver shared a jar of sun tea made from lemon balm and lemon juice, a refreshing lift on the hot day at the farm. At home she makes teas regularly from combinations like lavender and chamomile and lemon balm and holy basil.

It’s easy to forget, amid the splendor of lemongrass and mullein and echinacea, that even traditional culinary herbs like thyme, parsley, oregano, and basil have medicinal properties, which include anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial compounds.

“These more common herbs are sometimes less intimidating for people,” Winters says. “I encourage people to use as many herbs as possible, whether it’s for IBS or cancer or a subtle inflammatory condition.”

It may take time to build momentum for enough subscribers to support the Farmacy, but to augment their endeavor, Weaver and Spacht are growing cut flowers and specialty crops like purple snow peas, ground-cherries, heirloom squashes, and globe artichokes, whose leaves they hope to use for Farmacy bitters.

They also will be supplementing their Farmacy crop with foraged goods like chickweed (as useful for insect bites and skin irritations as for salad greens) and stinging nettles (diuretic, treatment for joint pain).

Weaver and Spacht see their mission as largely educational: creating awareness about folk medicine, the importance of organic, fresh products, and the often costly, labor-intensive harvesting process.

“We’re definitely not experts or doctors. We’re farmers,” Spacht says. “But we want to guide people on how to use these items and hopefully inspire them to do their own research.”

(herb recipes from Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and their contact information, can be found at Philadelphia Inquirer)

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