Elixir of life through the power of plants

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Healing with herbs is based on the idea that plants hold the key for good health – and even perhaps a touch of magic and the ability to transform us.

There is a long tradition of folk healing in Taos with generations-old remedies still used at home and prepared by many local herbalists. Although the approaches vary, the basic idea is that using the healing power of plants and being aware of our overall lifestyle can help with recovery from illness and continued good health.

‘Grandma herbalist’

Lucy McCall has been developing her knowledge of herbs and natural foods for more than 40 years. She began by studying astrology with her aunt, but soon expanded her focus to plant-based healing. “I wanted to figure out what to do to solve the problems that were revealed through astrology readings,” said McCall.

As part of her studies, some of her early teachers helped her see the connections between the patterns of the sky as seen in astrology and the medicine of plants. She began to search out books in small East Coast bookstores on the alchemical healing powers of plants. She spent time studying at the John Uri Lloyd Foundation in Ohio, which contains one of the largest collections of texts on ancient herbal healing in the world.

When McCall came to Taos in 1970, she paid attention to how healers here worked with local plants. In the summer, she picks sweet flowers, like rose and honeysuckle, to use in tinctures. She says that certain plants can still be harvested now, including sagebrush, especially the parts close to the earth to be used for blessings and treating flu and parasites. Rose hip, which is high in vitamin C, can also be gathered now.

Her home is full of herbs and plants that she uses for everything from healing burns to boosting the immune system. She sees herself as a “grandma herbalist” and believes that we can prepare many simple remedies ourselves to ensure our own heath. “The basic idea is that we can get by in life without having to see a doctor very much,” she said.

In addition to growing plants and preparing remedies, McCall teaches classes on herbology, wildcrafting and astrology at the University of New Mexico-Taos. She teaches in the holistic health and healing arts program with the goal to pass on some basic knowledge to her students so that they can prepare remedies at home.

She also takes on apprentice herbalists. Currently, Heather Enders is studying with McCall. She has an interest in plants and also art and has developed a hand-drawn tarot deck based on plant knowledge. Her art is available at Ennui Gallery in Taos. Enders assists McCall by preparing teas and pouring beeswax into molds while learning about a wide range of herbal remedies.

Winter preparation

With the coming of winter, McCall recommends adding osha, wild oregano and garlic to stews to help prevent sickness. Her “elder immune” tincture can be taken to boost the immune system and to fight off the increased threat of colds and flu that occur this time of year. For skin care, she recommends preparing a mix of herbs like lavender, comfrey, calendula, rose, honeysuckle and chamomile. These herbs can be added to any kind of organic oil; McCall likes sunflower oil. The mixture can be used to hydrate the skin. A similar preparation can be used to make a salve from beeswax. She says people here have always used what they had on hand to make salves, including the paraffin from candles and lard.

Some people believe that one should not make herbal medicine when in a bad mood for fear the medicine will take on that energy, said McCall. But she believes that plants will always help heal us. “The plants have power in themselves; their own magic power. If we are more positive, that will help the medicine. But oftentimes making the medicine is what is going to put us in a better state of mind because of the transformative, alchemical power of plants,” she said.

Continuing the tradition

Some of McCall’s students go on to create their own herbal practices. One student, Valerie Nielsen, developed a line of products called Nurture Essence Natural Skin Care. “When I started developing my skin care line, it grew out of the joy of working with the plants, the sense of working in co-creation with nature and a desire to offer a healthy alternative to commercial skin care,” Nielsen said. Her flower essence blends are designed to support the body with a greater sense of peace and self-appreciation while countering the stresses of everyday life.

Nielsen became interested in local herbs that she noticed while hiking — and afterwards started a garden of herbs that would benefit her health and that of her family. She said she had the opportunity to learn from the wise women and men of herbalism in her 17 years in Taos.

Cindy Stone of Wild Earth Remedies studied with McCall at UNM-Taos and has been gathering herbs here for 15 years. Her focus is to prepare creams and tinctures to help people heal from common ailments in a natural way. Her most popular product is “Desert Sage Arthritis Cream” for chronic pain and swelling. She gathers six herbs for the preparation nearby to ensure that the ingredients are fresh and pure.

“The Southwest is gifted with a long tradition of healing with herbs,” said Stone. “I talk to so many people at my markets who tell me about the remedies their mother or grandfather made and how they helped heal all sorts of things. They get so excited and always have a story or two to tell about gathering a plant or how it was used. Their faces light up. I do want to see this tradition carried on and am thankful to be a part of it. Today, more than ever, we need this natural medicine. It is powerful and it works,” she said.

For the coming winter season, she recommends an immune booster syrup made from elderberries, wild cherry bark and osha root. Another of her favorites is a high-mountain chai tea made with blue spruce tips, rose hips, elderberries, thistle and anise stars — which Stone says is loaded with vitamin C.

Oriental medicine

In oriental medicine, it is understood that the body needs to make adjustments to the changing of the seasons. Caroline Colonna, a doctor of oriental medicine, recommends that her patients come in four times a year for treatments that help the body prepare for the new weather that is on the way.

She also offers other approaches, including an antiviral herbal tea that can be used to help strengthen the immune system and treat viruses, flu, the common cold and bronchitis.

Colonna relies on her training at the Southwest Acupuncture College in Santa Fe and through the New Mexico licensing process, which requires 2,500 hours of classroom study and 500 hours of clinical experience. She has also gained experience in her 18 years of practice. Because there is so much to know about herbs, she uses resources such as the massive reference book “Materia Medica” and consults with other experts on specific herbal mixes.

Typically, Chinese medicine will have several basic ingredients that can be customized for a particular constitution after a consultation with a patient. Colonna said that in working with a patient, she can help develop treatments that respond to the unique health blueprint of each person. “Each remedy takes life as the elements come together,” she said.

Her training includes how to avoid unwanted interactions between herbs and prescription medicine. She also helps her patients develop lifestyle plans that include nutrition, exercise and sleep. If Colonna sees signs of underlying health conditions that require attention, she will refer the patient to a cardiologist, urologist, physical therapist or other specialist.

Originally from France, Colonna purchased the Willow Clinic in El Prado in 2000. In keeping with the advice she offers her patients, she stays active and is an accomplished skier and triathlete.

Featured herbal recipe

Cindy Stone at Wild Earth Remedies offers this recipe for those looking to try a home remedy.

“I like to make my antiviral immune system booster syrup from local in-season wild plant medicine,” she said.

• Slowly heat 2 handfuls of elderberries, a half handful of wild cherry bark and chop up 3 small osha roots.

• Let simmer for 30 minutes or so.

• Toward the end, add a little manstranso (apple mint), lemon juice and honey to taste.

• Simmer a few minutes more until thick.

Take one teaspoon three times a day for immune strength and to combat colds, flu, sore throat and help general well-being.

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