[Back to the Wild] Michelle Summer Fike (Now Michelle Wolf): How to Fall In Love With Herbs
The following is a transcript from her interview with Alison Ramsay for the Back to the Wild Summit. You can access the original interview here.
Alison: You have an ache, a pain, a cough, cold, the flu, fatigue, brain fog, a bite, sores, pimples, cuts, bruises, heartburn and headache. So you reach for your acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, antacids, antibiotics, Accutane, codeine and hydrocortisone to help ease the ache, the burn, the sting, the swelling, and a dose of something to help you sleep through all the discomfort. Although allopathic medication does have its place, food can also be your medicine.
Wild plant food in particular, boasts powerful medicinal qualities when you learn how to use them correctly. Here to talk to us about the wonders of wild herbal medicine and how the plants around your house can be alchemized into healing tinctures, poultices, balms, juices and teas, is the wild and weedy woman, Michelle Summer Fike. Michelle, thank you so much for being here to get a little wild with us today.
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, thank you so much for having me. And I loved your little introduction. That was great.
Alison: Thank you. So I’d love to begin with a bit about you. What was the spark that took you on this over 20-year journey into the world of healing plants?
Michelle Sumer Fike:
Yeah. Great. Well thank you for asking, and it was exactly that. It was sort of a moment in time or a place in a moment in time. And I tell people thathow the plants around your house can be alchemized into healing tinctures, poultices, balms, juices and teas.
I fell into herbalism completely by accident, but then of course I’ve come to learn that nothing is ever by accident. So it was back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and I was an undergraduate student and then a graduate student, and I was taking environmental studies.
Now that’s fairly common these days, almost mainstream. But if you think back 20, 25 years ago, environmentalism was this tiny social movement and green living was still very much like a way out there wacky thing to say to people. Now I had grown up around nature. I loved animals and during my studies I became very passionate about protecting Mother Earth.
Those were the words I would have used, and you know I was filled with that vim and vigor.
But studying the environment back then was all about the problems. We were just starting to learn about things like – I don’t know, drift net fishing and poaching of endangered animals, clear-cut logging and those issues are still with us today. Some of them are even more serious than ever.
But the point I want to make is back then it was all very much doom and gloom.
We weren’t into solutions-based problem solving around these issues yet, we were just discovering how bad things were getting. And I remember as a young woman feeling a lot of despair at that time, what is the state of the world – sense of hopelessness about what I could do.
And you know the issues were big, our understanding was little, our movement was in its infancy and there wasn’t much support or guidance for how to affect change.
So it was 1992, I made this decision to take the summer off from studies and go do something practical.
I felt like I had to go help reduce my ecological footprint and find something that could give me hope about how to live differently in the world.
And what I ended up choosing was to go apprentice on an off-grid, very wild organic farmstead that was deep in the mountains of BC – British Columbia, where I was from, and that was the summer that changed me.
“It was my transformational moment. It changed how I looked at the world, it changed how I felt about myself, it gave me hope for the first time and it introduced to me to what would become the passion of my life, and that was herbs.”
The family I stayed with, they grew herbs as one of their sort of sideline crops and Erin did up some salves and tinctures to sell in Vancouver.
And I was just fascinated with everything she shared with me. I was voracious about it. I was absolutely captivated. I sort of read all of her books, I harvested hundreds and hundreds – literally- bunches of herbs for their business over the summer. And on the days off they said sure, you can harvest some herbs to take back to Toronto with you. And so that’s what I did. Took back these little bags of herbs and I made them into some jars of tea and a few bath salts. I remember making a few cooking herb mixes and trying them out in my kitchen.
I made these little dainty sleep pillows. I had about 30 items. I have a picture of it that I’ll never hopefully part with because it was the launch of my business essentially. And I took these to a small craft fair and I sold just about everything.
And I was so excited and so amazed that the plants had so much to offer and that so many other people seemed to also be drawn to herbs.
It was an antidote to all that negativity about our human relationship with the earth, which up until then I thought was doomed. And studying herbs and working with them and touching them and gathering them, it gave me hope and connection and joy. And that was the start of my love affair with native plants.
And as I mentioned it was also how I founded my first herbal company, which was called Pumpkin Moon Farm.
I owned it for just over 20 years. I made and sold herbal products, I taught workshops, I wrote for magazines, I spoke at conferences; I just built my whole life around herbs.
And I sold it; it was a financial and a lifestyle success for me. And it was that summer in 1992 when I met herbs that it started that whole trajectory for my life.
Alison: Wow. That’s a great story. And I love the name of your company, Pumpkin Moon Farm. That’s so great.
Michelle Summer Fike: People always said oh, that’s such a great name. Why did you choose that name? It sticks in people’s minds, so that’s nice.
Alison: Yeah. You want to tell us why you chose that name?
Michelle Summer Fike: That’s another long story, Alison. Maybe another time. Okay?
Alison: Okay. We’ll save that for when we’re chatting later. Okay, so could you tell us – I know it’s a huge question, but a bit about what herbalism is and how it’s different from other types of healing modalities?
Michelle Summer Fike: Sure. I mean it is a big question, but it’s an important question because lots of times people kind of sidle up sideways after asking a few questions. What they say is then, well what exactly is herbalism?
So there’s a couple of things that I would say about that. I’m going to tell you what the World Health Organization considers herbalism to be and then I want to add a few of my own to the definition.
I like WHO’s definition, they say that herbalism is the use of crude plant material. And by that they would mean things like leaves and flowers and fruits and barks and roots and that kind of thing. And they go on to say the term herbalism refers to the long historical use of these medicines to support the healing function of the body.
Because of the long tradition of using botanicals to promote health, the use of herbs is well established and widely acknowledged to be safe and effective. So I like that and it’s a great starting place. And other definitions would say things like that herbalism’s the study of herbs or the use of herbs or even the medicine derived from herbs, or understanding of herbs.
And in all these cases I think what they mean by herbs is plants that have either a medicinal, a food, a perfume or a flavoring property.
And all of that’s accurate too.
Then the other part that I want to add is I also think that herbalism is sort of a celebration of plants. It’s a kinship with the plant world. People who are very interested in herbalism tend to have an intimacy and a fascination with botany. And it’s certainly a way of living. So herbalism can just be about the plants and what their compounds do to promote health, but I think we can use it as a more robust word. We can speak about a plant-centered lifestyle. So for instance when I say I’m an herbalist, I’m not referring to any particular set of information that I know about plants.
I do have lots of information, but I use that word to basically say in a fancy way, I’m a plant geek.
“I live my life through this appreciative, thoughtful relationship with the plant world. So I want to add that celebration and that relationship part to the definition.”
Alison: Yeah. Beautiful. Michelle Summer Fike: And then, what you asked is about other modalities. And I guess that lifestyle piece maybe is the difference. Herbs are a lifestyle or they can be. They can be incorporated into your healthcare, your beauty and personal care, into foods that you eat and beverages you drink.
They can be material for crafts and artisanship, home decoration, then I’m even thinking about things like pet care and child care and then outdoors, gardening, landscaping – on and on the list can go.
Then another difference I guess is that herbalism isn’t an energetic spaced healing system, it’s a physiological based healing system just like medicine is. There’s no pseudo science or nothing that you have to believe in for herbs to be effective.
So what do I mean by that?
Like for instance if you have a wound you can apply homeostatic or styptic herbs, that means herbs that will help stop bleeding. So for instance yarrow or blackberry. You could administer a pain-relieving herb, that would be an anodyne or an analgesic herb, and that may be like I’m thinking St. John’s wort applied topically could be a nice pain relieving plant.
And then you could apply wound healing herbs at the site of the wound, so thinking comfrey for self-heal or calendula for that. So physiologically there are compounds in plants, we call them phyto-chemicals. There’s also alkaloids, antioxidants – that’s a word people will know, essential oils, and they have a direct effect on the body.
So medicine, pharmacological drugs, nutraceuticals, you know they all work physiologically on the body and in fact they all descend from herbalism.
That’s another difference is that no other modality has such a direct and powerful link between the ancient world and the modern world. I think I love and trust herbs because they’re so ancient and so wise, and they’ve been used by people across all times and all continents and all places for all of human history.
There’s this fundamental human nature relationship that was built on the use of plants for health and wellbeing and it’s still here today. And that’s very important to me.
Alison: Me too. And it’s amazing how effective they are. Like we’ve kind of come out of communication with nature in a way and I talk about that a lot in the Summit.
When you start to regain that communication, when you start to experiment – I mean and I’ve used herbs sort of on a moderate level in my life. But it just surprises me – and it shouldn’t surprise me, but it does – like say if I get a wasp sting outside and I just grab some plantain and chew it up and I spit it and I put it on the wasp sting, instantly the pain is gone. Instantly.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. I know.
Alison: It’s so great.
Michelle Summer Fike: And it does surprise people and yet all of our drugs come from plants. And something like even still today 70 percent of our pharmaceutical drugs are plant derived rather than chemically derived so we shouldn’t be as surprised as we are. But I think it’s because there isn’t as much knowledge about herbalism in the general community and that’s why you and me and Tera and other people want to have these conversations.
Alison: Yay. Yes. So let’s move beyond herbalism. There is a next step, and that’s wildcrafting. So I’d love it if you could talk to us about this. What is wildcrafting and how is it different from herbalism?
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, wildcrafting – what I say is it isn’t exactly beyond herbalism; maybe I would more call it a form of herbalism or a way of gathering or even a way of prioritizing which plants to choose. So it’s certainly a wilder approach to herbs.
It basically means choosing and using herbs that grow wild in our environments and ecosystems rather than relying on cultivated or garden-grown plants. It means looking out the window and seeing that out there in nature’s bounty everything you could possibly imagine from the plant world is out there growing wild already.
So we can garden, and I’ve spent the last what – 22 years or something, growing herbs in my gardens, but I’ve always relied on wildcrafting from abundant stands of wild plants to supplement what grows in my gardens.
Some people say that wild plants are even more nutritious or filled with more complexity in terms of chemical constituents or are more health giving than cultivated plants. And another idea is that plants, they grow in the places in which we live, that they’re energetically or ecologically more appropriate for us than herbs that come from different bioregions or different countries.
So what they’re saying there is that by using plants that grow in the same soils as our immediate environment does, plants that breathe the same air and drink from the same water that we do, that we’re more in synergy with those plants. That somehow they heal us and nurture us because of our shared ecology. Now I don’t know if any of that’s true. I mean how can we know that? But these are questions of spirit I think, and questions for our hearts.
Science isn’t helpful here because people will believe things that seem true to them even if science doesn’t support it.
But what I can say is that after – not a lifetime, but an adulthood of living with herbs and with access to every herb on the planet and having tried a huge – a vast array of plants and herbs over the years because I had my product company for 20 years, my own preference, what I’m drawn to again and again, the plants I use on a daily intimate basis, they’re all local plants.
They’re the herbs that grow outside my window, in the woods, in the fields, they’re the plants that live in this valley with me, they’re the things that grow well in my gardens or they’re the ones that establish themselves around me wherever I live.
So you know there isn’t even a need to buy fancy imported herbs. I’ve seen it being the herbal community for 20-some years now, herbs run in fads just like fashion and celebrities do. Remember echinacea had its day and then St. John’s wort had its day and ginseng kind of comes and goes in popularity in big waves.
And I think that’s unfortunate because there’s no single one herb that’s right for everybody. But more importantly, and this comes back to the wildcrafting thing, is that there is no herb in the world that doesn’t have an equivalent plant in other parts of the world that can do the same thing, but that is more local to the people who are living there.
So there are literally hundreds of plants that you could take for an upset stomach. Hundreds of herbs that will help ease the common cold. Hundreds of herbs that will help you relax. So which herb you choose if you support wild living and wildcrafting and living with a smaller ecological footprint, you choose that herb that grows closest to you. Because then it takes the least amount of fossil fuel and energy to get to you, and regardless of what the herb of the day in popular media is, those herbs are available for you to wildcraft locally.
So I guess everything you need to develop a healthy herbal lifestyle is already out there in your region and that’s really important for people to know.
I did want to say one other thing about wildcrafting because there certainly is a human impact when you go gathering plants from wild plant communities. And in some cases because of the popularity of herbs and we have a burgeoning herbal products industry, the use of herbs by big pharmaceutical companies, all of these things have put a tremendous pressure on some plant communities. They’ve been eradicated and extirpated some species; they’ve put many others at risk. And so there is an organization called United Plant Savers. I’m a long-time member. They’re based in Vermont on the Eastern United States. Their mission is to protect native medicinal plants of the United States and Canada and their native habitat, and they say while also ensuring an abundant renewable supply of medicinal plants for generations to come.
So emphasis on their work is to identify which plants are threatened by over-harvesting, educating the public about how to properly harvest herbs and what alternative herbs you can use so that you’re not choosing the plants that are at risk. And then also they help support organic farmers to cultivate these herbs because if they’re being grown for the marketplace there’s less pressure on wild stands of plants.
So I don’t want to be all preachy or anything here, it’s important to me though that wildcrafting of some plants is much harder on the environment than wildcrafting abundant medicinal plants, which there’s lots of. So the focus is to focus on those plants.
So, I guess the take home is you can certainly ethically wildcraft and I have done that for many years. And in some cases harvesting and pruning and kind of tending, adopting wild stands of plants can be really beneficial to both wild plant communities.
But let me pass on a couple of wildcrafting best practices if I can then, just so that people will know what to do.
One of the rules of thumb is that you never take from a plant community, a small plant community of say less than 20 to 50 plants. So if you’re – I don’t know – you’re out harvesting one evening – I’m looking out my window right now and I see evening primrose. Well that grows abundantly in Nova Scotia, but in some places there’s just one plant here and one plant there. And in other places there will be a whole meadow of them. So obviously in one of those situations it would be inappropriate to pick it, in the other case where there was a big community of plants, it would be perfectly appropriate. So it’s not even exactly the plant itself, it’s how big is that plant community.
Another thing to bear in mind – forest plants tend to be much more precious and fragile than meadow and field plants. So harvesting forest-dwelling plants is a particular concern. And in that case you’d take very sparingly only from big forest plant communities.
And another sort of motto is just to give back. So seeding wild plants is particularly helpful and I can share a resource at the end for where to buy some rare plant seeds. And then you can also help by like weeding around the edges of a rare or a wild plant planting, especially if there’s competing invasive species there.
And then I think the best rule of thumb is probably just bring mindfulness and integrity and gentleness to the act of wild harvesting. And I think that headspace alone will ensure that you make the right decisions. Then you don’t have to worry about it. Because I don’t want people to get afraid of it.
When I do plant walks, I encourage people. There’s lots of plants and they love to be in relationship with you and harvesting can help them reproduce more, you know stronger root systems and things. So I want people to feel like they can wildcraft. And if they bring mindfulness, integrity and gentleness to it, then it’s hard to go wrong.
Alison: Great. Thank you so much for sharing that, and I think it’s really important and I do talk about that with the man that I do the foraging call with as well.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. Great. Yeah, same thing for many of the wild foods for sure.
Alison: Yeah. Being aware of how the plant populations reproduce and how much you should take and what part of the plant you should take. You kind of need – if you want to do it well, if you want to get serious about it there’s maybe a bit of education that you can get before you go into the world so you don’t wipe out your patches and of course –
Michelle Summer Fike: And it’s always so great if you can locally take classes and learn from people who do native plant walks and things because these people are such a tremendous resource for people.
Alison: I want to go back to when you mentioned sort of the more spiritual side of wildcrafting and what you said about the synergy that we have with the plants in our environment. With a couple of people I spoke to involved in the Summit, they mentioned kind of a secret phenomenon in the realm of foraging and wildcrafting, where the plants you most need seem to be find their way to you. Can you speak to this, Michelle?
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, I’d love to because I love that. And there’s a story that I’ll share at the end if we have time about this from my own personal life. But what I want to say about this now is that, you know I think that it comes from the fact – like it starts with preferences.
People feel a strong connection to plants and certain plants in particular do tend to draw people’s different attention. Many of us who teach herbal classes or internships, one of the first things we do is we get people not to study herbs, but to study a herb. And we get them to find what is that one herb that’s calling to them. So just like you might prefer golden retrievers and I might prefer St. Bernards, so too you might prefer let’s say chaparral and I might prefer say juniper berries.
So both of these are wonderful antibacterial herbs, but I believe that in many cases paying attention to which plants you really enjoy – so that could be you like how they look or smell or their shape or something about their flowers, or even how or where they grow. You know whatever that is that you’re drawn to.
Then it’s worth paying attention to that because there’s so many – and let’s stick with our example of the antibacterial herbs, why would you choose one over the other? I say you choose the one you’re drawn to. There’s a reason for that preference and you don’t need to know it or justify it or understand it.
That intuitive knowing can be an important part of healing.
And learning to pay attention to our intuition is an important re-wilding skill – back to the wild, learning to trust our intuition around a lot of this is important. And I do want to say one more thing about this because I think it’s fascinating.
Plants are really complex. There are obviously the medicinal alkaloids and the phyto-compounds that are healing in a given plant, but then each plant also has different configurations of those compounds and other non-medicinal compounds.
Something that’s responsible for an action in our body. Let’s say we’re looking for a lymphatic action that supports the health and activity of the lymph nodes and the lymphatic system. We might look at cleavers or we might look at astragalus. But there’s lots of non-medicinal compounds in each of those plants too.
Those two plants are very different. Well, the idea is that because we have different constitutions as human beings, certain plants might be better for us than another plant. It might have a similar overall action in terms of that thing we’re looking for, in this case a lymphatic support. But those other non-medicinal compounds might mean a certain herb is more suited for me and a certain herb is more suited for you because our biochemistry is different. So I mean obviously this is something you can believe or not believe.
There’s no proven theory one way or another on all of this. But I think I’m going to go back to this intuition issue – our sixth sense. That issue that you raised is an issue of whether or not we’re willing to listen to our intuition as one of our guides in the world of herbalism and in getting back to our wild side or just our more basic nature. So I think cultivating our intuition and then cultivating our trust in our intuition, that will serve us well in many, many areas of our life, not just herbalism.
Alison: Wonderful. I love that and I speak about that with other speakers in the Summit too. It’s just, you know we’ve kind of lost touch with our intuitive side whether you believe it’s there or not. And when we’re rewilding ourselves it’s really important to get into nature and quieten our mind down and become a little bit still and just come into present time.
And it’s amazing sort of what comes up because that inner intuition and that inner wisdom is already there; we just have lost communication with it.
We don’t hear it so well anymore. But we need to become still and we need to sort of heighten our senses and it just emerges automatically. And we kind of don’t know how to decipher it at first, but the more and more we do this, it’s amazing sort of energetically or I don’t know how you would say it – you do sort of become more attracted to certain things or more aware of certain things.
Or I find if I spend a long time in a forest my senses become very heightened and I’m very aware of say a mouse in the grass or a bird in the tree– in a way whereas if my mind is you know spinning with things to do and stuff at home and problems with the kids or whatever, I wouldn’t notice those things. So I’m really glad you mentioned that and I think it’s really beautiful and so important. And I also wanted to say that I think there’s so much we don’t know and don’t understand because we’re living in a very sort of science-based world where if we can’t measure it, it’s almost like it doesn’t exist.
If we can’t do an experiment on it or like stick a meter onto it like it’s just not real. But I think as we become more and more sort of aware and do more and more studies and do find things to measure these things we find that, you know what we knew 50 years ago is so much less than what we know now.
But still I think there’s just so much intelligence in nature that we don’t understand, you know because we’ve kind of lost communication with that side of ourselves and we sort of don’t have those sages or leaders in our communities to pass down that information.
But let’s get a little bit practical now that we’ve talked a little bit about the spiritual side of things.
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, I do love talking about that sort of meditative mindful way of being in nature. And over the years talking with so many people about their relationship to plants, it’s not uncommon for people to be having really powerful experiences and the power comes because they’re simply paying attention and feeling like I’m being drawn to something or being asked to do something.
It’s oh my goodness, because that isn’t supported in our society, then I feel like I’m having this big experience.
It’s probably not really that big of an experience at all, it’s just it’s so rarely supported that people feel like it’s a big deal when it’s happening.
Alison: Or it’ll be seen as strange or woo-woo. But in my foraging call with a man named Fergus, he says that if you keep noticing a plant, a certain kind of plant then that should bug you because that plant’s trying to say hello to you.
Michelle Summer Fike: Absolutely. That’s sort of that thing about find your plant rather than learn about herbs or learn about a herb. How do you do that?
And that’s certainly one of the directions is start paying attention. There will be certain herbs that every time you go for a walk, every time you look down, every time you’re laying in the grass suddenly that will be the plant that’s beside you.
And it’s amazing how much you start paying attention those things happen. Alison:
Yeah. I’m having that experience with chickweed at the moment.
Michelle Summer Fike: Chickweed – that was one of my very first plants too.
Alison: Yeah. Yeah, it’s winter here and chickweed is just growing everywhere. And I just notice it everywhere – everywhere I look – chickweed, chickweed, chickweed, and it seems to be like overtaking my lawns at the moment, so I’m eating a lot of chickweed at the moment.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. Great.
Alison: Great. So let’s move on to some easy to identify basic plants people can start to use as medicine. And we’re going to have that pdf up. On your bio page there should be a download for people to have a look at some photos.
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, great. Well it is always so hard to narrow it down to just a few. And what I have done for this interview is put together a pdf document and it has plant photographs and some resources in it. So it’s kind of like a plant identification guide for people so that some of the plants that we’re going to talk about here I can – I will have photographs and people can hopefully be looking at that as we move through this next section.
That’s always the question, what are a few plants that people can start with. And it’s a hard to think to just choose a few, but there are some that are common over a wide range, like a wide geographic distribution. So that everyone on the call should be able to find most if not all of these plants.
And also I picked some that are specific to different body systems and have different actions. It’s a good mix of sort of introductory plants.
So I wanted to start with plantain. That’s plantago, and there’s two species that tend to be the common ones that are used medicinally, the wideleaf species, often called greater plantain or just plantain – plantago major. And the other one is the much more narrow-leafed upright variety. Sometimes it’s called ribwort or lesser plantain.
And you can see that it kind of has more like a ribbed shape to the leaves. In the photographs it’s easy to see the difference before them, but they do have the same medicinal properties and they can be used interchangeably.
Now, I love that you mentioned the thing about the bee sting, and let me just talk about that for a second. Because I think this is a great first aid tip for people if you’ve been bitten by a bee or a wasp or you’ve got a particularly sore – even like a black fly or a horse fly bite, something that’s swelling up.
Plantain is an emollient and an expectorant. And what that means is that it supplies warmth and moisture, it can reduce inflammation and it’s drawing, like it will draw toxins or foreign material out of the wound or bite. If you’ve got a bad bite you just hunt around outside and pick some plantain.
One or two leaves is all you need. Besides the plant identification photos you can always tell it’s plantain because if you hold the plant leaf right at the base of the leaf where it sort of attaches to the stem and you pull gently and pull it out. The leaf will come off, but there will be like one or two or three short strings hanging from the leaf space of the stem. There’s a photograph also of that in the pdf file so you know what I mean. That’s another way to identify you’ve got plantain.
So you just pop a couple leaves in your mouth, like you said, you give it a chew, chew, chew, you let your saliva mix with the leaves and you break it into these little tiny pieces with your teeth. And then what did you say you did? You spit it out and you have this gob of this green leaf and you just apply it directly to the bite and it’s amazing.
Alison: It is amazing.
Michelle Summer Fike: Within minutes the redness and the swelling’s reduced, the pain will have subsided. And I’ve used this remedy lots of times over the years for myself, for people on field trips and workshops, it never fails. It’s so – I’m so glad you mentioned it because you can be the testament to that.
Alison: Yeah, definitely. And my kids too.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. Right. Well, it’s really important to have something quick and easy if you get bitten because they can be very traumatized by a sore bite and –
Alison: Yeah. A wasp sting really hurts.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah, I know. And then you can also put plantain in salves. It’s just a wonderful wound healing and antimicrobial – and so every salve recipe I developed for my first herbal company had plantain as one of the ingredients. It’s also good for cough and inflammation of the intestinal tract. It’s slightly astringent so it could be used in a pinch for say, diarrhea or hemorrhoids or something. And of course you can use it as a poultice or a dressing for a wide range of external skin conditions and wounds – either the whole leaves or macerated.
Another great wild plant with wide distribution is raspberry leaf. Now Rubus idaeus the American red raspberry. That’s the one that’s commonly found throughout North America, but there are wild raspberry species around the world, like Rubus as a genus is a very big genus. There’s a lot of species in there.
Raspberries and blackberries are both in the Rubus genus and so you would just find whatever’s wild in your bioregion and harvest that. When possible, you do want to look for wild raspberry leaves because the hybridized fruit bearing cultivars aren’t necessarily quite as astringent as the wild species and it is that astringency that’s responsible for some of what it does in the body.
Just in terms of harvesting what I want to say is that what you’re looking for is the bright, vivid, non-fruiting first year canes. So the fruit will grow on the second year older growth. And in any stand of raspberries there will be a mixture of those bright first year canes, they have no berries on them and the color is slightly brighter green on those canes.
And then there will be second canes. They look slightly duller, some of the color tends to be more gold in the second-year canes and there are fruit that will develop there. So you want to harvest those first-year canes for using for your teas and infusions.
And I just also had an identification tip; raspberry versus blackberry – Rubus fruticosus, and they look pretty similar out there in the wild. If the plants are fruiting yet, or if it’s past fruiting season it can take a pretty trained eye to tell them apart at first glance. So here’s what I tell people who are just learning to do plant identification.
And the photographs for this are in that pdf document too.
So if you turn over a blackberry leaf it’s nondescript, meaning it looks the same underneath as it does on the top in terms of color and vein structure, the top and the bottom are pretty much the same. But if you turn over a raspberry leaf, it’s beautiful bright green on the top, but it’s this very obvious grayish silver white color underneath.
So if you aren’t sure, just turn the leaves over. If it’s green it’s blackberry, if it’s silvery gray it’s raspberry.
Definitely eat lots of raspberries but then also consider adding raspberry leaf teas and infusions to your herbal repertoire. Raspberry leaf has long been considered – you’ve maybe heard this, a midwife’s or a pregnant woman’s best herbal friend and that’s because it’s very nutritive, it’s astringent, it has toning properties for the reproductive system.
But you don’t have to be pregnant to benefit from this herb, and in fact both male and female reproductive systems can benefit from regularly using this herb. One of the leaf’s compounds is a flavonoid, it’s called fragrine, and it has an affinity for the muscles in the pelvic region and the uterus, which is why it helps tone the uterus during pregnancy. But it also means it can help reduce nausea in the stomach, menstrual cramps and kind of griping stomach cramps in general.
It also is helpful for the reproductive system and the hormonal system in particular. That can be affected by everything from, you know exhaustion and overwork, stress, adrenal fatigue, nervous conditions. And then things like trauma or grief or loss, and these are all things that affect women and men both. There’s also – it does provide relief for things like painful periods and perimenopause, menopause, miscarriage, it is a prostate tonic, and infertility challenges in men and women.
So lots of reasons to use it. And then finally just generally raspberry leaf tea, when you have a cold or flu you can take it for fluid retention. And if you drink a nice strong raspberry leaf tea, it’s actually called an infusion when you steep it for a long period of time, you’ll notice it’s like quite drying to the mouth. You’ll say ooh, that kind of tastes funny or is doing something funny in the mouth. That’s its astringency. It has that pulling, drying, tightening action in the body. So it’s a very good, fast acting remedy for diarrhea.
Blackberry leaf is too by the way. And it’s safe to use with children who have diarrhea and that can be fairly serious in little kids, so that’s great. So I have one other herb here that I’m thinking about, and it is coltsfoot, tussilago farfara. It’s a great wild plant and I look forward to harvesting it every year and it grows in North and South America, Asia, Europe, so it has a wide distribution, but it isn’t particularly wel lused in herbal communities. And that’s why I wanted to introduce it. It grows in gravel, along rocky seashores, along roadsides. It grows where there’s very poor soil, in lots of inhospitable environments, there’s little coltsfoot growing.
It’s just tenacious and I love that about it. And in fact when I was at Tera Warner’s at her place in Quebec I saw a lot of coltsfoot growing along the roads and ditches near her castle, so that was fun. It’s one of the few plants that actually sends up a flower stalk and fully set seeds before the leaf even appears. So it’s the very first yellow-flowered plant you see along the roadways in the spring. And lots of people mistake it for dandelion. They think oh, look, the dandelion on the road is flowering early. But actually dandelion flowers bloom like three to six weeks after coltsfoot has bloomed. And the flower – yes, it’s yellow, but it’s not quite as vibrant yellow as the dandelion. Once you’ve seen it and done some plant identification, then you don’t tend to make that mistake again. Now it’s not the flowers that are used medicinally, it’s the leaves. And you use them either dried or in tincture form. And it’s very specific for lung conditions. Cough, irritation, people are sort of persistently clearing their throat because they have something irritating them there. Or people who get frequent lung or chest infections should just regularly drink a cup of coltsfoot tea.
I’m going to introduce this idea here for a second because coltsfoot’s such a great example of it. And you have maybe heard of the doctrine of signatures.
It’s this ancient philosophy from back in Galen’s time. And I don’t know – he was alive something like 100 A.D. or something. So this was before people understood much about the natural world at all in ways that we understand them now. And this doctrine said that herbs that resemble various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments of that part of the body. So lungwort is so named because it looks very much like a pair of lungs, it even has these little white dots on it as if you were looking at an x-ray with tuberculosis or something in it. Now, modern scientists refute this theory because obviously there’s so many exceptions to this idea.
Lots of plants treat a part of the body and they don’t look anything like it, so it doesn’t actually bear out very often. But in the case of coltsfoot it’s kind of interesting. So one of the ways that you identify the plant is that the leaves are quite large, some of them – small ones would be sort of the size of my palm and large ones would be the size of a big dinner plate.
Alison: Wow. Michelle Summer Fike: And they kind of have a beautiful heart shape to them. And they have this deep vein running down the center. So the leaves could be said to look like a pair of lungs with the spine in the middle. But what’s even more interesting is if you turn the leaf over the backside of leaves are covered in a downy white filament. It sort of looks like a thick spider webbing and there’s no pattern at all to the filament structure, it kind of runs randomly across the back of the leaves. It’s different on every leaf.
So it simply creates this likeness if you add that to the leaf shape to this miniature set of lungs if you’re inclined to see it that way. And this plant, that’s all it’s used for.
Michelle Summer Fike: Some plants have multiple uses; coltsfoot is just a lung herb. So I think it’s pretty neat and it’s worth finding this herb just to see with your own eyes what I’m talking about with this lung pattern.
Michelle Summer Fike: And I have included a photo in the pdf file too. Alison: Great. I’ve never heard of coltsfoot.
Michelle Summer Fike: See.
Alison: I don’t know if we have it.
Michelle Summer Fike: I know. Lots of people haven’t. And once you see it and do a plant identification, then my guess is you’ll start seeing it all over. Now I don’t know the plants in New Zealand, so maybe it isn’t there, but –
Alison: We have all the common ones everywhere though.
Michelle Summer Fike: I bet you will have recognized it from your time in Canada.
Alison: Yeah. We have all the – I mean New Zealand’s quite a unique ecosystem and we have plants here that are nowhere in the world, but we also because of, you know emigration and – I can’t think of the word, but when the pioneers came over they brought all the weeds, you know. Like we have all the same plantain and chickweed and cleavers and we have all those common plants that you find most places in the world. So we may very well have coltsfoot. I’ll be interested to see the picture and try and find it.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. I hope you let me know. Yeah.
Alison: Yeah. Great.
Michelle Summer Fike: I have one other plant. Do we have time for one other?
Alison: Yeah. Go for it.
Michelle Summer Fike: What I – the other photos that I have are of wild lettuce – another interesting herb. Now lettuce is in the Lactuca genus, and there is a garden lettuce that is closely related to the wild plant.
And the most common species of wild lettuce that we find here in North America is Lactuca virosa, but there’s three other fairly common species that can all be used interchangeably. One of them is called prickly lettuce and it’s called Lactuca scariola, and I just love that. It’s one of my favorite Latin names. You can use all of them interchangeably and why it’s an important wild plant is because it helps with sleep conditions.
Now there are a number of general nervines in the wild plant families. These would plants that nourish and tone the central nervous system and they can help with anxiety and stress and nervousness. But stronger sedative nervines, herbs that deeply relax and quiet the nervous system to the point that they can promote sleep, there aren’t that many wild plants that can do this safely.
And yet there’s wild lettuce, which does have this effect and it’s a very common plant. So if you’ve ever picked a dandelion flower with the stem intact you notice that there’s a white latex excretion on your hand that comes out. This is whitish and sticky and it actually contains most of the compounds that make dandelions such a great liver tonic and bitter. Well wild lettuce secretes a similar white excretion and it’s one of the ways you can do a positive identification once you’ve identified the leaf structure, whether or not the stem drips a bit of white juice out when it is squeezed.
Now it won’t be as prolific as dandelions, some of those really have a lot of latex leaking out. But it will do a similar thing. One of the compounds is actually a latex called lactucarium and it’s extremely bitter. So this is one of the herbs that’s better to prepare as a tincture. You can’t really drink the tea in enough quantity to have a sedative effect because it’s just too bitter.
And these substances – those thick latex substances – they tend to extract best into an acid like alcohol better than water anyway. So we don’t have time on this call I know to talk about how to make remedies, but I hope you’ll check out my website, it’s at wholegreenheart.com. I have a free gift there and a newsletter because in the coming months I will be releasing details about some herbal remedy making workshops and programs that I’m hosting.
And you know that Tera and I are also collaborating on some herbal and gardening programs coming up. So hopefully you’ll find more about that next time.
Alison: Yay. Awesome. So I just wanted to ask you – all these basic plants that you’ve just spoken about, you can just eat them as well, like break them up into small pieces into salads and stuff as well?
Michelle Summer Fike: Sure. I mean the wild lettuce is going to be very bitter.And Raspberry leaf has a sort of coarse – almost like you’re chewing hay, so –
Alison: Better in a tea.
Michelle Summer Fike: They can all be eaten, but certainly some of them are tastier than others.
Alison: Sure. Of course.
Michelle Summer Fike: You know they can certainly all be used in teas. And some of them have interesting flavors, and lots of them don’t have much flavor at all and they’re really great to mix with culinary herbs like sage or oregano or basil or mint, which will give your drink the flavor that you like. But you’ve mixed it with a sort of a neutral tasting, non-bitter herb that you can kind of get the vitamins and minerals out of it in the infusion.
Alison: Yeah. And what I do is I get like a cultivated lettuce and then I’ll get a bunch of wild, more medicinal bitter greens and just break them up into tiny pieces and mix it in.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah.
Alison: And that way you’re not getting the flavors too strongly, but you’re still getting the medicinal qualities in your diet on a regular basis.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. That’s great. You can even chop them up finely and put them in the salad dressing for instance. Alison: Yeah. Michelle Summer Fike: Then again it kind of spreads it out through if you put in like just with olive oil and a nice apple cider vinegar. Alison: Great. So, this is probably a massive question because you have so much wisdom and you’ve been using plants for so long, but maybe just quickly – how do you use wild herbs in daily life?
Michelle Summer Fike: Daily life. Well, it’s sort of one of my favorite questions because I think people can get overwhelmed with the thought of learning how to use herbs for medicine. But you don’t need to start there. You can start with just how do you use herbs in your daily life. So that free gift that I was saying on my website is actually a report and it’s sort of my top secrets for living a healthy herbal lifestyle. And in it is more of this information, just how to simply start integrating herbs into your daily life.
But there’s at least two things that are really popping to mind that I’d love to tell you about. And you know I like the question too because people love to hear how other people do things. You know we’re gregarious by nature, we’re influenced by community and information is great, but how people are using information is what inspires people.
So I hope after this call that more people are feeling very inspired to just go start enjoying herbs. And the best place to do this is start making herbal teas and infusions. So first and foremost that’s what I do every day. And I mean every day. There is always a mason jar or a lidded glass pot steeping somewhere in my kitchen with plants in it.
For about nine months of the year there’s always something I can pick outside for those infusions. For six months of the year it’s a huge buffet out there of wild plants and then for a few months of the year there’s like a much more limited selection. But even in the dead of a Canadian winter I can still harvest fresh cedar and pine and spruce needles.
During a thaw I can sometimes find dried rose hips or juniper berries and even sometimes things like bayberry or sweet fern. Some of those plants, the leaves will dry right on the plant and they can still be picked through the winter. And then of course I dry a lot of plant material during the spring and summer and fall so that I have other herbs to add to my infusions. So I get my infusions and I make them every day. I just love that part of my life where every day I make an infusion.
And I put it in the fridge. Infusions are made when you steep herbs and you pour over hot or boiling water and you’ve let them sit for a longer period of time than just a five-minute tea. But once they’re made I strain off the herbs and I usually put them in the fridge because I do enjoy cold infusions. And often I add something like half a squeezed organic lemon, rind and all, into – I have those big 1.75 liter mason jars and I fill that with my infusion and I drink it instead of water.
Always, always, always drinking these cold infusions. It’s brilliant; it’s so easy.
It’s the main thing I do. Sometimes if I know I’m going to be extra busy I make a bigger pot filled with infusion, I strain it into several large mason jars and I put them in the fridge and they’ll last me a few days. It’s important to strain off the plant material because things like nettles, which I love putting in my infusions – very high in proteins – they’ll start to degrade fairly quickly in the fridge so it’s better to strain it out first. I also make infusions and then I use them in cooking.
So I’ll do up a big pot of herbs, so maybe nettles and maybe bayberry, which grows wild here and has an interesting flavor, certainly blackberry and raspberry and then something culinary. Maybe sage or oregano. I’ll make all of that up as a soup stock or as water to cook rice in. I also make all my fresh smoothies and I add cold infusion instead of water or coconut water. The liquid with my fruits is always cold infusions. And sometimes I make a green juice and I find it just a little too green or a little too vegetative and so in that case I dilute it with mint tea. I always have a mason jar with just mint leaves and water in my fridge so that I can use that. And also kids love that. If I have company over sometimes I might have a very robust tasting infusion. I don’t like to serve that, but the mint leaves in water is always a hit with people. Alison: Yeah.
Michelle Summer Fike: The other thing to remember is that you don’t have to waste any. So there’s times when I’m making more infusion than we can even drink and what I do is just take it up to the bathroom if it’s a couple days old or if I have extra. I’ll put that in my bath water, I’ll splash it on my face as a tonic, I’ll rinse my hair with it or even just dilute it half and half with water and feed it to my houseplants. So just using infusions all the time instead of water in lots of ways in the household, that’s a big way to start easily incorporating herbs into your everyday life. And that the other thing that jumped out when you asked the question was that I just walk in nature every day.
Having dogs that need walking rain or shine or snow, we have to go outside. So it keeps me walking outdoors every day. And I think that’s another important way that I use wild plants in my life. Although in this case of course it’s a passive use. It’s simply plunking myself into their world and observing and watching and being with them. But I think that is another really important part of starting to cultivate a close relationship with plants is just be out there.
Alison: Beautiful. I’m so inspired by what you just said. Especially about the infusions and putting them in your bath and putting them on your face. How luxurious and wonderful.
Michelle Summer Fike: It is. It makes you feel like you just – at the most luxurious spa and some of them smell so good. People always say to me – Alison: Sorry. I have a call with Daniel Vitalis and he is big on – I don’t know if you’re familiar with the epigenetics, and that’s how we can actually turn genes on and off. So say you are predisposed for the breast cancer gene or whatever. You can switch those unfavorable genes on and off. And the way that you can do that is by incorporating as much variety of plant medicines as you can in your diet. So that’s a really great way to affect your epigenetics.
Michelle Summer Fike: Absolutely. Well, those infusions – in the run of a year you could literally have hundreds of plants go through your kitchen into those mason jars and into your fridge and then into your body.
Alison: Yeah. And I’m sure your body just loves it because I think we’re really lacking sort of in our modern diets – really lacking in that variety if we’re just eating our breads and our meats and our potatoes and our cultivated salads. You know there’s so much you’re not getting –
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah.
Alison: – that you could be getting. So I’m inspired.
Michelle Summer Fike: I’m glad.
Alison: Great. So if people wanted to keep a very simple first aid kit – herbal first aid kit at home, what are some common plants that they could use and for which ailments?
Michelle Summer Fike: Okay. Well a herbal first aid kit is a great project and I’ve done workshops on creating an herbal first aid kit and people love that. It’s kind of something they can relate to. Now a good first aid kit requires the stuff first. So I think you get some good bandages, lots of gauze and tape, little scissors, get a long tensor bandage.
What else? Even like a flashlight and a couple of clean rags in a plastic bag or something. And then a plastic see-through bin that you can keep everything in because you’re going to put in your herbs in here too, right? And then the fun part is filling it with herbs.
Here’s my suggestions. This is like six products that would be the basis of any first aid kit that I’d want to make.
First you’d start with an antibiotic tincture. In the spirit of concentrating on wild plants maybe we would consider things like usnea, goldenseal, although make sure this is organic cultivated goldenseal because that is one of the plants that has moved onto the United Plant Savers at risk list because of over harvesting.
There’s also juniper berry, chaparral, Oregon grape root and even echinacea, those could be antibacterial herbs. I would say try to include at least two of those – more if you wanted. And this tincture would have two uses in your first aid kit. One, it can be used to clean wounds. Now it’s going to sting because it has an alcohol base.
Alcohol is acidic and that’s why it stings. But it’s really important to clean wounds with clean water and then some kind of disinfectant, so this tincture would be great to use for that. And then if anyone started to get sick, they’re not feeling well, they get the sniffles, they start feeling like maybe they’re coming down with a cold or they get that little tickle in the back of their throat, it’s really great to just immediately take an immune stimulating antimicrobial and antiviral remedy like this. So that’s number one item. And then it would be also great to have something that was pain relieving. So some good anodyne or pain relieving herbs, even some of the antispasmodics might be things like cramp bark, and that is my favorite pain-relieving herb.
It’s Viburnum, opulus. It’s such a great plant, it’s easily found in lots of environments and it’s one of the plants that you can start tincturing early in the spring because you use the bark of very early spring plant material. You could use things like lobelia, but that’s a low dose botanical, so you’d have to do your research for the dosage on that.
You could use skullcap, white willow bark and then again black cohosh and wild yam can both be used for pain relief. I wouldn’t use them on their own but they can be used in a mixture. They’re both on that UPS at risk list, so you want to be purchasing organic cultivated black cohosh or wild yam. But those are some great possibilities for a good pain relief tincture. Now you want a good quality salve in your first aid kit and we don’t have time here to talk about salve making, but in the pdf document I’ve provided a link to – I think a six-page article I wrote for Canadian organic growers all about salve making.
Everything you could ever want to know about salve making, it’s sort of my ultimate work on salve making. So if you want to read more about that you can just click the link, it takes you right to the article.
In terms of herbs to consider using if you’re going to purchase them – and again focusing on wild plants here – there’s so many. There’s so many good wound healing vulnerary herbs out there. Plantain we talked about, there’s cleavers – I think we mentioned that, St. John’s wort, Euro, usnea. There’s things like Burdock root, witch hazel leaves, elder – you could use the leaves or the flowers, red clover blossoms, bayberry, even blackberry leaves can be used in a salve.
A wonderful astringent. And the salve you would use obviously over a wound once it’s cleaned. You could also use it on a rash or a burn. You could apply it preventatively on skin. First aid – you’re going to be in severe weather. Or even on animal paws if you’re going to be on difficult terrain, you want to put something on your dog’s feet before you hike up that gravelly mountain. And you can use these salves as rubs, so over sore muscles, maybe you have an inflammatory flare up or achy joints.
And as long as you’ve used good quality oils it could be used as an emergency food source or an oil out in the back country. That is some serious first aid.
Then the next ingredient I would say you should have in that kit is a little five mil bottle of a really great all around multipurpose essential oil. And my favorite for this purpose is lavender. Now, I know – I know everyone uses lavender in everything. But there’s a reason. From a medicinal perspective lavender essential oil is really wonderful and has a big range of actions. It can help heal the skin, it can help ease burns, you can use it for headache. You just rub a few drops over your temples and keep applying it like every ten, 15, 20 minutes. It’s not one time only. Just keep applying that. It can help you relax or sleep if you’re in a nervous situation. It’s good for taking the sting out of bug bites; it will disinfect a room or even equipment in a pinch. And most people do like the smell of lavender. There are a few other options if you don’t like lavender you could use peppermint. That would be another option with mostly those same uses.
Tea tree oil also good, geranium and I think Bergamot. Those are the ones for first aid that I would recommend. So choose one of those and put a little bottle in your kit.
Alison: Awesome. I love lavender.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah, I know. So many people do. I know it can be overused and we see so much of it, but as an essential oil it’s a really great herb. I would put a couple of herbs in there just as teabags. So just ready to use teabags of organic chamomile and organic ginger and not combos. I’d say take five teabags of each.
Little teabags like this are great because you can use them as a small dressing, they can be placed over the eyes, they can be made as individual servings of tea. So the chamomile you’d want in there because it’s a great internal and external soother. You could dunk it in hot or warm water and then use those teabags right over the eyes for eyestrain, for sunburn and for nervous conditions.
When people are very nerved out because they’ve been injured and you can get them settled down and cover their eyes with chamomile teabags it does wonders for their nervous system. It can be cooled a little bit and then the whole teabag can be used as a little dressing over a wound. You apply it teabag and all and wrap it with the gauze.
Chamomile’s a mild pain reliever, so it will help with that a little bit too. And then of course chamomile as you know is a great nervine, so anyone who has been hurt and anybody helping them – both could use some chamomile tea. And the ginger teabags I would say put in there because the dressings could be done in the same way, but this is where you’d want to bring heat or circulation to an area. So this is more like you’ve got some inflammation, maybe a swollen ankle or a swollen finger or a joint that’s aching. In that case you don’t want to use something like chamomile. You want to use something warming like ginger and keep that dressing warm by reapplying hot water to the tea bag. It can be pain relieving; it will bring down some of the swelling. And then ginger tea taken internally you could use that for people who are getting car sick, if they’re not traveling well, if they’ve got nausea or cramping in the tummy.
And if you’ve eaten something that just isn’t agreeing with you, make up some of that ginger tea. And then I think the final thing I would add to my little first aid kit would be a small bag or jar of dried raspberry leaf in the case of diarrhea or – you know I don’t want to say food poisoning, but if you’ve eaten food that’s really made you sick. Diarrhea can be really hard on the body when you’re traveling, so raspberry leaf will be important to have there along with fresh water. So two tinctures of salve, an essential oil, two kinds of herbal teas in a teabag and a packet of dried raspberry leaf. I mean there’s so many other things you could add, but I think that would be a great start.
Alison: That’s wonderful. And so there will be some of us out there who will be pretty jazzed up about this information and maybe want to do a plant walk and want to start looking into the corners of their forests to see what they can find. But not everyone is going to be as jazzed up as that, but still may want to use wild herbs or cultivated herbs in their daily lives.
So what are some good resources that you know of where people can buy these like maybe online or in their local health food stores or any other resources where they could find these herbs or some of them anyways?
Michelle Summer Fike: Great. Well, my first recommendation I think still for everybody is to buy a great field guide. Even if you don’t really use it, it’s amazing how much having pictures of the herbs will help you feel more connected. The two that I used all the time back in my early days when I was first learning to identify plants and needed visual guides; they were the Peterson Field Guides. There’s one for medicinal plants and one for edible wild plants. Those are the two to buy.
Then also see if you can find people like I said, who are doing plant walks, plant identification talks or come learn from me in Nova Scotia or join programs.
Learning from people who know plants and actually seeing the plants in their natural habitat gives you so much more confidence when you start to play with plants. And learning from other people is fun and it stays with you in a way that book learning sometimes doesn’t. So get some just visual information.
Secondly I think I would send people to their local farmers market. More and more I see great small skill herbalist, herbal product makers selling stuff at local farmers markets. And some of them are selling really great product at really great prices. Now my advice is to ask questions, make sure the people you’re buying from have herbal experience, they know how to properly make herbal remedies. Because there are poor quality products out there. People are just buying dried ingredients and whipping things up quickly, they’re not paying attention to the efficacy or the time that it takes to really extract compounds from plants properly.
But if you ask questions you will find some great products out there made by local people in your community and I hope you find and support those people. And then for everybody who can’t access herbal products locally, there are a couple of great online options. My favorite go-to resource in the 20 years I spent producing herbal products myself was always Mountain Rose Herbs in Oregon.
Whenever I need something that I couldn’t grow or I ran out of I bought it through them, and I still do. I have a link to their store in my pdf document.
And why them? Well they only sell organic product and I think they were the first and continue to be the only large herbal company that doesn’t sell any conventionally grown herbs. They have a really strong commitment to sustainable agriculture. And they also – they’re just good business, they donate money to worthwhile causes, they have excellent HR policies, that kind of thing. So Mountain Rose Herbs is my go-to place.
Another online retailer I’ll mention is Richter’s Herbs in Ontario. They’re my go-to resource for unusual and hard to find herb seeds and rare seeds. Remember when I was mentioning one thing to do is to be seeding native endangered communities. This is where you can find seeds for things. It’s very hard to get seeds from other places. So that’s their specialty, but they also sell some dried herbs and herbal products and books. You know the company I founded, Pumpkin Moon Farm, I’ve sold that business, but the new owners are still producing products using my recipes and formulas. You can find them online. And then I know you mentioned health food stores. They can have good herbs, but I found the herbs tend to sit around longer at health food stores, especially in smaller stores. They aren’t necessarily organic either. And sometimes they’re kept under bright lights for like weeks or months at a time, and that really degrades their quality.
So if you are shopping at a health food store for herbs, make sure the quality looks great, that the herbs have lots of color and vibrancy to them, that the staff can assure you the stock turnover is frequent and that the herbs aren’t conventionally grown. Because many imported conventional herbs are contaminated with pesticides and fumigants and other chemicals more so than food.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah, so there are lots of options there for people.
Alison: Awesome. Thank you for that. Is there are any special stories or experiences you’d love to share with us? You mentioned earlier that you wanted to share something at the end.
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, if there’s time I have one little story.
It just goes back to that whole thing about herbs can come to us. And I think our callers here might enjoy hearing it. So a few years ago I was looking for a new property. I needed a bigger herb drawing space for my business, I wanted a studio space that my staff could access without going through my house. So I’d found a place that I loved. It was on 40 acres, it had lots of woodland plants, it had beautiful established gardens and it had two houses.
And it was perfect because I could use one of the houses for my studio and intern space. But I was having trouble getting the financing because the banks were only able to access the property using the value of one of the homes. Now I don’t know if that’s just Nova Scotia or Canada or what. But that second home, it increased the selling price but the banks wouldn’t approve that assessment value, so there was a big gap between the assessed value and the price of the offer. Well I was devastated because I loved this property. I could see my business growing in that site and this place was also in a little place called Harmony, if you can believe it. I mean right out of a fairy tale.
But at some point I finally accepted this property probably isn’t going to happen for me. And I very begrudgingly started looking for another place and nothing really spoke to me. This other place had been so perfect and I was so set on it. But one day I saw this new listing and it looked sort of promising, but before I called the realtor I wanted to do a drive-by just to make sure it was private enough from the road and that kind of thing.
So I drove to the driveway and I turned left into the driveway and I just went down a little bit and I took a good look around. And it looked really beautiful and it felt really great, but I’d kind of hardened my heart about another place because I so loved that first property.
And I noticed down at the bottom of the driveway I could see a horse chestnut tree. Now that’s a medicinal tree. The nuts are used in the treatment of vein issues, used for people with spider veins, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, that kind of thing. I said to myself, you know that’s a pretty good sign. But if it had been a hawthorn tree that would have been the real sign that this was the place for me. So that’s what I said to myself.
Now hawthorn is also a medicinal tree and there aren’t very many in this area and I’d always wanted a hawthorn tree on my property. So I finished looking around, I put my car in reverse, I backed out of the driveway and I turned back on the road toward the way I had come. And right there, just past the entrance to the driveway on the right side of the road, just in on the property was this great big healthy hawthorn tree. I know my breath caught in my throat. I pulled over on the side of the road and I just wept. It’s so powerful to have that kind of thing happen.
Alison: Yeah. Beautiful. And is that where you are now?
Michelle Summer Fike: It is. So this beautiful, beautiful home and property and private studio and big outbuildings and yeah – it’s turned out to be just an incredible place. But I would have passed it by if it hadn’t been for that one hawthorn tree.
Alison: Yeah. All beautiful. That’s a lovely story. Thank you for sharing that.
Michelle Summer Fike: Well, thank you.
Alison: I just have one last question before we can let you go.
Michelle Summer Fike: Great. Alison: And that is what is your wild wish for the people listening to this call?
Michelle Summer Fike: My wild wish. Well, I’m sad to see our time wrapping up. I’m so enjoying this, I love talking about herbs with people. I guess I have two wishes that I’d leave people with. One is that I hope this is the beginning of you getting more excited about being healthy by falling into – if not love, curiosity – falling into curiosity with the wild world of plants and herbs.
And I hope you will go sign up for that free gift and for my newsletter because I have a herbal tribe and I have information that I share and I want to be able to have you join me in digging further into this plant world.
Then my other wish is just that you go outside. You just go out there, whether you live in downtown New York City or Berlin or Seoul, whether you live in the suburbs or out in the country. My point is that nature is actually in all those places and wherever there’s nature, there’s plants. You know just look again for the very first time.
Just notice them, pay attention to all those plants, be amazed that each tiny different leaf and hedge and grass, it has a name and it has a story. There’s something special about it. Many of them also have these gifts to share with us in terms of health or wellness properties and it’s just amazing really and we forget that it’s amazing. But it’s out there in our lawns and in our parks and it’s in schoolyards, it’s even in abandoned lots. I mean herbs are everywhere; plants are everywhere.
Get curious and get protective about them and get inspired and then you go outside again and you go again and again and just the more you’re with plants the more you know them and you begin finding ways to bring them into your home and your life.
Alison: Your passion is so inspiring, Michelle. I’ve loved speaking with you today so much. And yeah, I hear what you’re saying and I really think that we’ve just become a bit distracted by all the fancy things in our modern world. But getting back in touch with nature and getting back in communication with nature is so fascinating and so useful and so healing on so many levels.
And I really encourage everyone out there, you know if you’re not already a nature fanatic you have to test that out. Like you said, get curious about it. Because we have all this fascinating technology that distracts us, but like nature is incredibly fascinating, amazing and the more you dig, the more you uncover, the more fascinated you become. And yeah, it’s a wonderful, beautiful world out there. So thank you so much for sharing all your amazing wisdom. Oh my goodness, I want to come to Nova Scotia and live with you.
Michelle Summer Fike: I want you to come here too.
Alison: Yay. Well, one day. Maybe you can come to me.
Michelle Summer Fike: Yeah. Right. I had mentioned to you earlier that I lived in New Zealand for a couple years when I was very little, so I do plan to come see you one of these years and visit.
Alison: Well, I’ll be counting the days. I’ll have my questions lined up and my New Zealand plant book ready.
Michelle Summer Fike: We’ll go on a weed walk there and see
Michelle Summer Fike: – and see what kind of weeds we can recognize together.
Alison: Yeah. Thank you so much, Michelle.
Michelle Summer Fike: Thank you for everything. And I really appreciate the chance to be on the call.