The Art of Making Tinctures

Poke TinctureSome of the frequent questions I hear from students and friends is “why doesn’t my tincture look/taste like yours?” I  have spent many years making wonderfully potent tinctures and making horribly disappointing mistakes. So here are my lessons learned. But first…

A note on menstruum, marc, and other words used to describe tincture making. The art of making herbal tinctures comes with its own vocabulary. The vocabulary words aren’t necessary to the process, so if you aren’t interested skip down to number 1. If you are interested, read on. The first word is menstruum. The menstruum is the solvent liquid that is used to extract the plant constituents. Solvents are liquids that the medicinal constituents of a plant will dissolve into. The menstruum can include the following liquids: alcohol, vinegar, water, vegetable glycerin, oil, or wine.

Generally, the word tincture is referring to an alcohol extraction. A tincture made with glycerin is usually referred to as a glycerite. Other extractions are often referred to by the type of menstruum used, such as vinegar extractions. The plant you want to make the tincture from determines the menstruum. For example, if you are making an extract of a plant like Stinging Nettles, that is high in minerals, consider making a vinegar extraction or using a higher water to alcohol ratio. Vinegar and water extract minerals better than alcohol does.

If you want a tasty extraction that is safe for children or people with alcohol sensitivities consider using vegetable glycerin (note that glycerin is often sourced from soy). Glycerin can also be used for plants that are high in mucilage (slimy constituents that help heal mucous membranes and other tissues, such as Marshmallow and Mullein. Plants that are high in resinous constituents like Pine or Balsamroot require a higher alcohol content or can be extracted in oil. The marc is the plant material that remains after the extract is removed by pressing or squeezing. The marc can be put in the compost. Two other important words are standardized and folk method.

Standardized vs. Folk Method
Tincture making with alcohol usually follows one of these protocols. Standardized tinctures adhere to the protocols established by a conference held in Belgium in 1902, “Conference Internationale pour l’Unification de la Formule des Medicaments Heroiques.” This protocol was adopted by the US Pharmacopoeia in 1906. Making a standardized tincture involves weighing the plant material and then preparing the menstruum at the appropriate ratio. Different ratios were established for dry plant vs. fresh plant and for varying potency. For example, a dried plant is prepared at a ratio of 1:5, 1 part dried plant in grams to 5 parts menstruum in milliliters. If you want to learn more about standardization, pick up one of the following books:

The Herbal Medicine Makers Handbook, by James Green
Making Plant Medicine, by Richo Cech

The folk method is far less complicated but in my experience often yields similar results. Start by thoroughly garbling your plants (this is described below under number 2. I choose a container that I think that all of the plant material will fit in once it has been cut into small pieces.

Fill the jar about 1/4 to 1/3 with your menstruum. Start placing the plant material in the jar before you begin cutting it. As you place the plant in the jar, chop it up as small as possible with scissors. You will be cutting the plant up in the jar directly into the menstruum. (I describe this more in number 3 below). Keep cutting and adding more of the plant and menstruum (if needed) until the jar is full.

Make sure that the menstruum covers the plant material. Put a lid on tight. Now maceration begins. The process of maceration has two parts time and agitation. The recommended time is two-four weeks. Agitation means shake it. Shake it as often as possible but at least two or three times a day.

The shaking helps distribute the plant material so that pockets of air and water don’t stagnate and cause your extract to rot. After the two weeks is up, strain, press, or squeeze the liquid out of the marc. Put your extract into a dark colored bottle and store in a cool dry place.

Note: the above methods are for alcohol extractions. To learn more about using other menstrua, get one of the books mentioned above.

And now for my lessons learned…

1. My tincture just tastes “green.” Usually what they mean by this is that it tastes ambiguously vegetative. This effect usually occurs when certain plants are grown in or near vegetable gardens. Plants create various chemicals as part of their survival strategy. Certain types of stress cause plants to create their own protective chemicals in response.

A few years ago I had a group of herbalists sitting on my front porch. We each had our own yarrow tincture (I had at least 3 from different places). So we did a taste test. We found that the yarrow that grew in the high desert near the Columbia Gorge in Oregon surpassed all the others in complexity and potency. Those places included the Rocky Mountains, the bluffs along Lake Erie, and a hayfield in northern Wisconsin (and perhaps others I’m forgetting).

I’ve also tasted yarrow tincture made from a plant grown in a garden in Portland, OR and found that it had that ambiguous and bland green taste. It doesn’t mean that you have to travel to eastern Oregon to have a good yarrow tincture. But, if you have the option, choose the plant that lives under some duress. That said, avoid plants that look diseased or inhabited by tiny critters, unless you know that the chemicals created under that stress are the ones you are looking for.

2. “My tincture isn’t as strong as yours.” This usually occurs when the garbling process is overlooked or under appreciated. Garbling is the process of removing dead leaves, dried up flowers, woody pith that comes off when peeling barks, and other parts of the plant that contain little to no medicinal constituents. This will add more time to the process but as you can see in the picture of the two St. John’s wort tinctures, it matters. And really, why wouldn’t you want to take the time to make the best tincture.

Variation in St. John's wort tincture. One was carefully garbled and chopped, the other was not.
Variation in St. John’s wort tincture. One was carefully garbled and chopped, the other was not.

Another thing that can happen is that the plant is not processed soon enough, especially when the plants being used have volatile oils that evaporate quickly. Timely processing captures more of the potency. Although I often lose some of the bulk of the plant while garbling, I often leave out stems unless they taste nearly as strong as the other parts I’m using. Which is a good reminder: taste the plant before you make the tincture. That’s what your tincture should taste like. If your tincture tastes different, something went wrong, and usually it’s the problem I describe in number 4 below.

Another aspect of potency is knowing when to gather plants. And I will say right now that there are many different theories about this. Some believe that the phase of the moon is critical. Others will say that time of year matters. Others emphasize the age of the plant. I will leave it at that because I believe each herbalist should find their own way as they develop direct relationships with the plant.

3. “My tincture isn’t as dark as yours.” This often happens when plant is cut on a cutting board. If you do this, take a look at your cutting board next time and notice whether the cutting board turns the color of your plants. You could be losing your color and potency on the cutting board. Instead weigh your garbled plant material and measure the appropriate amount of menstruum. Begin adding the plant to the alcohol while using scissors to chop it up in the alcohol. You will also increase the potency because you will likely end up with smaller pieces. You might be tempted to throw it all in the blender. Some herbalists do this and others don’t. Those that don’t say that the blender breaks down the plant material at a cellular level compromising the tincture quality.

4. “My tincture smells or tastes funny/different/weird.” The first question I ask the person that says this is, did you shake it with real commitment? The process of letting the tinctured plant soak and shaking it is called maceration. This process is vital especially if you are working with fresh rather than dried plant material. If it isn’t shaken, air and water bubbles could be trapped and lead to rot. Rotten tinctures are not good tinctures. There was a time when I had a chance to gather some important plants but then I had to travel. They were all lost. So if you can’t do it, find someone that will.

Last Words
Remember that intention is the most important part of the tincture-making process. Be mindful while gathering plants with good wishes for community and personal healing. Be mindful of where you are and your methods of wildcrafting – some of our most precious plants are listed at-risk of endangerment by United Plant Savers ( Take time to learn some basic principles of ethical wildcrafting. I will share my ideas on this website after I present a workshop on ethical wildcrafting in August at the Planting the Future Conference (


Leah Wolfe



Shadybrook plans a fundraiser to help the Serpentine Project

Reposted from the News-Herald in Ashtabula, OH.

The News Herald (, Serving Northern Ohio


Shadybrook programming helps explore spiritual traditions, personal growth

Monday, January 14, 2013

By Janet Podolak

With deep roots in Lake County dating to more than a half-century ago in Kirtland Hills, Shadybrook has perhaps come full circle as a place to explore spiritual traditions and achieve personal growth.

Times have changed since the Layman’s Retreat Association in the post-World War II melting pot world sought to help people learn and thrive from their differences. That was in 1955, when the group began to meet at Shadybrook House, one-time Kirtland Hills home of the Arthur Baldwin family that later became headquarters for the Lake County History Center.

Learning from their differences remains the mission among the Shadybrook members and friends who now meet at a church for programming drawn from faiths ranging from Buddhism to Catholicism, Hinduism to spiritualism.

But Shadybrook is by no means a religion.

“Finding joy in life is something we embrace,” said Laura Christian Imbornoni, a professional-level yoga instructor and retired longtime director of the Mentor Senior Center.

She’s a member of Shadybrook’s board of trustees, along with her husband, Steve Imbornoni, an ordained spiritualist minister, who is a psychologist practicing in Beachwood and both a licensed hypnotherapist and massage therapist.

Another trustee is Dean Williams, an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and leader of Shadybrook’s current series of meditation workshops. Other board members include an attorney, an educator, a mental health professional and an Internet technology professional.

The diversity of the board reflects not only the diversity of Shadybrook’s membership but its programs.

“Since it’s where we meet, we tend to be joined at the hip with East Shore Unitarian Church,” said Williams, who says he has seen greater and greater numbers of that church’s members among those attending his meditation workshops. He tells folks that Shadybrook is welcoming to all spiritual seekers.

“Culturally, we’re Jewish, agnostic, atheist, Catholic, pagan, Protestant and none of the above,” Laura Imbornoni said.

That would seem to make Shadybrook a good fit for many folks.

A recently released Pew Research Center study found that one in five Americans, or 33 million adults, is religiously unaffiliated — a 5 percent increase in just the last five years. But, that nationwide survey found, 46 million adults describe themselves as spiritual in some way. More than 55 percent said they felt a connection with nature and the earth and 68 percent professed a belief in God.

“There’s no obligation for anyone to agree with something that’s presented,” Steve Imbornoni said.

Last year, for instance, he presented a program based on hypnosis-based regression therapy, taking hypnotized subjects back to childhood and even to the time before they were born,

“It’s a fascinating therapeutic application,” he said. “Although Zen Buddhists like Dean and others don’t believe in past lives, but belief is not necessary for this program to have validity.”

Buddhist priest Williams said he may not subscribe to all the practices presented, “but I’m not dismissive of them either. The intention of all of them is to be beneficial, and people find what is of benefit to them.”

Intention is something fostered at Shadybrook, whose members are increasingly forging partnerships and raising money for other organizations intended to serve the greater good.

“Right now we’re planning for a Spiritual Spa Day on March 23 that will give people the opportunity to try out a variety of alternative healing modalities,” said Beth Bracale, Shadybrook’s director of operations and programming. “Beneficiaries will be Forbes House in Lake County and Serpentine Project in Ashtabula.”

Chair massages, Reiki, drawing and various meditation techniques will be showcased, and practitioners also will take their skills to Forbes House to administer them to the abused women living there. There will be a nedra yoga healing experience, and drumming for healing is being explored.

Herbalist Leah Wolfe, founder of the Serpentine Project, will be on hand with healing herbs. The Serpentine Project is dedicated to preserving and protecting native plants, learning about their uses and why it’s important to protect them.

“The Spiritual Day Spa is a good example of us presenting options and possibilities of different avenues toward healing to help make people aware and to see if there’s something they wish to explore further,” Steve Imbornoni said. “If there’s sufficient interest we sometimes have follow-up experiences.”

He said Shadybrook’s careful stewardship of an endowment received many years ago allows for it to have the funds to hire employees such as Bracale and not concern itself with constant fundraising efforts to stay afloat.

“We are really blessed in that way,” he said.

“In December we had our first fundraiser to benefit Angel House in Strongsville,” he said. “They work with the Girls and Boys Club of Cleveland and Girls and Boys Hope of NEOhio to bring in teens and their counselors to experience a day of healing and working together.”

Some Shadybrook members expected the eye-rolling response they’d seen before from teens but were delighted to see how instead the young people embraced learning to manage stress and empower themselves.

“They learned journaling, and that was just one tool that has allowed them to share things with their counselors that they’d been unable to talk about,” Bracale said.

The experience resulted in several Shadybrook members becoming more closely involved with Angel House and even signing on as volunteers.

Williams says he sees Shadybrook’s intent to reach out with support for other organizations as a game changer.

“To me it’s such a joy to be able to find out about and learn things in ways that would have been almost impossible before this,” Laura Imbornoni said. “We are in such a fast-paced information age that Shadybrook’s wide open posture of listening is even more worthwhile now. We give people the chance to sit and focus and spend time looking inward so then they can reach out again.”

Shadybrook House


Dancing in response to the Kirtan devotional chanting by the group Enchanted Hearts, shown today, will take place again in April.

Shadybrook programming takes a winter break until March because weather becomes an issue. But Dean Williams’ meditation sessions take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m. the first Monday of each month at East Shore Unitarian Church, 10848 Chillicothe Road, Kirtland. Fee is $10.

Let’s make syrup!

Earlier today, after looking at a few more websites and pictures of various rocket stove designs, I got it into my head that I would just go out and make the thing.

Why not?slab

I used a rectangle of cement that was poured by the Drennans, the people who lived here while my dad was growing up.

Just barely legible on the slab is written, “Drennans’ Dogwood Dell”

Anyway, I laid the slab our away from the seed room and started carrying bricks over to it.

Some of these bricks I’ve had for almost 20 years just waiting for the right time and project.base layer

They are mostly fire brick and refractory soft brick, of various shapes and sizes, with a few red brick mixed in.

Directly on the slab I laid a bed of 16 red brick with a row of soft brick along either side. This would be my base.

Why red brick?
I really couldn’t tell you.

Then I ran 3 courses of fire brick in a long skinny rectangle.

 capped fire box

I capped off the fire box with a large fire brick, I have no idea where it came from.


The chimney was proportioned roughly the same size as the firebox opening (which I didn’t like) so I took a red clay chimney tile and set it into the existing opening.

Then I just built up around the tile a couple of layers of fire brick, switching to soft brick until the final course, which is one level above the top of the chimney tile.

let'g get it going
The entire lower section was then covered in soft brick, 1 layer along the sides and back and 2 layers over the fire box.
4 pieces of broken kiln shelf are used as the supports for the pot with the syrup in it.
At 1:00pm Leah lit the first fire.
It was about 50 degrees and falling with a pretty good wind out of the NNE.
syrup cooker v1.0The chimney started drafting properly from the start, but as things slowly began to heat up I felt that the firebox was too close to the chimney so I added a cinder block outside of the firebox opening with hard brick for walls and cap.

From no fire at all, it took about 1 hour 20 minutes to bring 10 gallons of maple sap to a boil burning only pine at first, then adding maple and ash as it heated up.

We cooked the sap till it got dark and started to rain. night fire

For whatever reason I just can’t get enough of looking at a fire burning in a brick firebox at night.

final cooker for now

After a little thinking on things over night, I decided that I wanted the chimney even taller and that there needed to be something to deflect the heat up the sides of the pot.
So I added 4 more courses of brick.

Just letting it vent straight out the sides seems a waste.steamy cauldron
For that, I stood the final course of bricks on end.
The redirection of the heat is made obvious by the additional black carbon accumulating up the sides of the pot.

almost syrup

Considering how much of the water was boiled away and how many hours we fired the cooker, we used remarkably little fire wood in the process.

Still a couple of hours from finished, the syrup is starting to take on the golden brown of maple goodness.

There’s more about making syrup (and sugar!) here:

The Seed House and the Trillium Center

Becoming a member of the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary Network has opened some doors to transformation for the Serpentine Project. In 2013, we will launch the Trillium Center and the Seed Gardens, which will include the Seed House.

The trillium is a three-petaled flower deep in the woods that wraps its seeds in what looks like a pat of butter. Ants carry these seeds, three times their size, and store them in their underground tunnels as food for the colony and its queen. Thus the flowers spread slowly through the woods, unlike the mayapples and partridgeberry dispersed by deer and birds.  There are two species growing here, the common white trillium, some which may be as old as 50 years, and the rarer red trillium that was given as a gift from a friend on the Medicine Council for the Lenape Nation. Trilliums are at-risk of becoming endangered. As we work on this land, helping to restore the forests and growing gardens, we realize that the relationship between the trilliums and the ants is like the dream we are weaving of a place where people can come to find creation and creativity in the retreat from the buzz and the press of the cities. People will come here and carry away their own precious seeds and perhaps store them until the time comes for them to germinate and bloom into new projects and ideas.

At the Trillium Center people will learn folk arts through experiential skill building projects and workshops. The workshops will allow participants to create in a collective environment so they can apply these skills in their own communities. Currently, we have a list of people who are interested in teaching ceramics, dyeing with plant-based dyes, carpentry, creative gardening and cooking, outdoor skills such as building shelters and starting friction fires, and wildcrafting wild foods. We are seeking people who can teach a wide variety of skills that would include woodworking, painting, blacksmithing and tool making, wildcrafting plants to make cordage and baskets, making snowshoes, and other folk and healing arts. We believe that health and healing are intrinsically connected to artistic expression and hope to encourage people to integrate functional art and folk traditions into their healing process.

The Trillium Center workshop topics will complement the herbal medicine and wellness workshops that Leah Wolfe, founder of the Serpentine Project, currently teaches, which are offered locally and throughout the country where workshops are requested. Her philosophy holds that traditional approaches to healing, including plants, nature, and storytelling, support community health. Some of the workshop topics include Kitchen Medicine, Storytelling and Healing, The Ancient Art of Wildcrafting and Medicine Making. A full list is here: The donations received at these workshops (less the expenses) are put into the seed fund for the Serpentine Project. Leah founded the Serpentine Project in 2009 as a botanical sanctuary and an educational endeavor to improve community health and resilience through plant medicine, education, and folk traditions. The botanical sanctuary has been accepted into the United Plants Savers Botanical Sanctuary Network and is taking on a life of its own. Meanwhile the educational aspect of the Serpentine Project will become the Trillium Center and the botanical sanctuary will be called the Seed Gardens.

Plan for the Seed House
Plan for the Seed House

The Seed House will be a place to plant seeds and nurture plants to share with the community while planting seeds in the hearts of our participants. The Seed House will be an educational program that launches in 2013. It will include monthly plant walks and seasonal workshops. The free plant walks will start with an introduction to the Serpentine Project and UpS. We will then take a tour of BLD farm to see the Native Plants Learning Garden, the Seed House, the food forests, and the wild forest.

The Seed House will be a two-part building: sunroom and greenhouse. Back in the 1950s, the Drennans lived here and ran a small dairy. What remains of that family business is a small barn and a concrete slab where what may have been a milk-processing room stood. That slab will serve as the sunroom’s foundation. The straw bale sunroom will have a timber frame sourced from our land, a passive solar design for winter warmth, a rainwater collection system for the greenhouse, and a bench thermal mass heater to dry plants and seeds and to provide a warm sunny place to go in the winter. A hoop-style greenhouse will attach to the sunroom, which will allow us to humidify the sunroom if needed.

Help us raise the funds to make this dream come true!

We need some help from our friends and plant friends in general to make this happen. Please make a donation via PayPal or send us a check or money order.

The finished frame for the sunroom in the Seed House

Send checks payable to Serpentine Project to:

Serpentine Project
c/o Leah Wolfe
715 Furnace Road
Conneaut, OH 44030

Or donate online via PayPal by clicking below:

Get on our mailing list or follow this blog to receive updates by sending an email to

The United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary Network

Today we received a package in the mail from United Plant Savers. UpS has welcomed the Serpentine Project into their botanical sanctuary network. A bit from the UpS website:

UpS Botanical Sanctuary Logo“The mission of United Plant Savers is to preserve, conserve and restore native medicinal plants and their habitats of the US and Canada, while ensuring their abundant, renewable supply for future generations. To this end, United Plant Savers established one of our most important projects: the Botanical Sanctuary Network. As we became more deeply involved in the complexities of plant preservation, we realized that in order to preserve plants we must first preserve and protect the habitat in which our native plant communities thrive. What better way than to create a network of sanctuaries dedicated to restoring and preserving habitat for wildlife, both plants and animals.” Read more here if you are interested in developing your own sanctuary:

I decided to work toward developing a UpS sanctuary for medicinal plants while I was studying plants in Oregon. Much of my studies centered on indigenous or native plants and naturalized plants. Some of the indigenous plants are rare and require ethical wildcrafting and propagation to ensure that they continue to exist. So I invite them to the places I live and hope that they settle in and get comfortable. Right now I’m inviting plants to NE Ohio. I had a garden in Oregon and then later started another garden around the meditation center at Anathoth Community Farm that is still doing well.

At BLD farm in NE Ohio, a learning garden with the at-risk species has been established closer to the house so that people who want to come learn and see the plants can do so without braving ticks and mosquitoes. So far that garden has a few plants each of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Black Cohosh, Bloodroot, Goldenseal, Wild Ginger, Great Blue Lobelia, and Red Trillium. The other medicine gardens are in open areas near the garden and the work site for the green house.

Our long-term plan is to establish a center at BLD farm that emphasizes Earth-based skills (such as herbalism) and other folk arts that can contribute to a more sustainable society. We are currently working on the design of the primary classroom and apothecary. If you would like to help us make this dream come true, please donate or volunteer. Send checks payable to Serpentine Project to:

Serpentine Project
c/o Leah Wolfe
715 Furnace Road
Conneaut, OH 44030

Or donate online via PayPal by clicking below:

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Get on our mailing list or follow this blog to receive updates by sending an email to <a title=”” href=””></a>.

A Social Justice Activist Preparing for Disaster

This article was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine last year.

Street medic

I am frequently asked why I still go to protests. This question surfaces in conversations about successful political actions – the assumption being that mass mobilizations in the U.S. are rarely the tools of change they once were. For me it doesn’t matter. I measure the success of an event by the community connections made, the skills developed, the wisdom shared by the too few elders.

Maintaining situational awareness with the buddy walk.

Most importantly, I have found that my work as a street medic and herbalist at mass mobilizations gave me a few skills that made it possible for me to do disaster relief. Mass mobilizations, after all, are often considered political emergencies by the State. And sometimes, these events turn disastrous when police deploy “less-lethal” weapons to disperse crowds. Street medic history starts with the Civil Rights Movement and the American Indian Movement. People trained as doctors, nurses, first responders, and others with more traditional skills such as acupuncture and herbalism began marching side by side with protestors to promote health and safety by preventing dehydration, blisters, and other co


ailments while being prepared for the emergency situations that arose when counter protestors or police injured marchers I encourage herbalists to consider working at a free clinic during a mass mobilization. It’s an opportunity to learn about the logistics of providing medical support, develop conflict resolution and negotiation skills, practice cultural and situational awareness, build community ­– all under duress. These clinics are open to the public. Clinic staff ranges from doctors to acupuncturists and from herbalists to EMTs. For some patients, this might be a rare opportunity to receive health care. In an emergency situation, it’s important to be able to set up a clinic, provide medical support for large numbers of people, and think on your feet.


When we got the call, we’d been spending most of our time shoveling snow in NE Ohio. A friend in Montana called to ask Charles and me if we would be willing to go to Haiti. The team was self-assembled and unaffiliated: all we would have was each other. We knew other street medics who were in Haiti and through them learned about a Haitian living in New Jersey who was looking for medical teams to go to his hometown, St. Marc, in northern Haiti. Odson would be our guide and primary interpreter while we were in Haiti. We raised money in our communities and within a week of deciding to go found ourselves flying to the Dominican Republic.

When we arrived at the hospital in St. Marc, we discovered that the American team of surgeons and nurses that were there were leaving the next day and the next team was not arriving for five days. We were the only care providers for their patients during that time. We provided care for patients who had received or needed serious operations, amputations, complicated breaks requiring external fixators, and skin grafts. After that five days passed and the next team arrived, we took a day off.

After resting for a day, we went to the village where Odson’s grandmother lives to see the countryside and set up a clinic for the day. We set up a three-part clinic: wounds/musculoskeletal injuries, blood pressure, and minor medical treatments (pharmaceuticals and OTCs given by a nurse and herbal remedies from me). That day was amazing and incredibly discouraging. The countryside is beautiful, but the people are undernourished – some of them suffering from easily prevented conditions, like night blindness from Vitamin A deficiency.

Having a check-in meeting with a Haitian nurse.

Before we left Haiti, Odson told us that the hospital staff agreed that we were one of the best American teams to come to St. Marc. There were two reasons for this. The first was our willingness to ask how we were doing. After two days of working in the hospital we asked to have a meeting with Odson and his sister, a nurse at the hospital. This gave us an opportunity to learn from our successes and mistakes. We learned that Haitian providers use full sterile protocol on all patients. We were ushered in by a team of doctors who walked us through their protocol – they weren’t using sterile protocol either. They felt that nothing about the environment was sterile, so why bother wasting the costly sterile gloves on every wound dressing change. Just outside of the operating room, we were told to take care not to stand directly in front of the doors, because the water dripping down was a sewage leak. However, the Haitian doctors and nurses employ full sterile protocol precisely for the absence of sterility throughout the hospital. Despite this blunder, none of our patients developed new infections in their wounds while under our care.

Our second success rode on our willingness to integrate as much as possible into the community of St. Marc. We stayed with Odson and his family, creating our own tent city in their enclosed courtyard. When we needed to go somewhere, we walked or rode on the back of motorcycle taxis. We bought our food in Haitian grocery stores and restaurants. (One American doctor expressed mild shock that we went out for a drink with “them.”) We flew kites made from beach trash and skipped rocks with the children at the beach while chickens, pigs, and goats nosed through the garbage in the sand. None of us were fluent in Haitian Kreyol, but we learned basic phrases and important words. One of the slang phrases I learned (to everyone’s amusement), was m lage cha a (I gotta bounce).

Everyone’s an herbalist in Haiti

That may sound like an exaggeration, but this is in contrast to the U.S. where many of our best medicines are torched, yanked, or sprayed in an effort to annihilate their existence. Odson frequently pointed out things that his mother or sisters use for teas. His father spoke of the medicinal qualities of calbasa while demonstrating how to carve the hard shell into a bowl or water carrier.

Leah talking (and learning) about herbs.

I learned more about Haitians and their plant knowledge while we were visiting the village where Odson’s grandmother lives. After lunch (rice with chicken and greens), a few of us wandered into the yard behind the houses. I was feeling that it would be better to recommend treatments based on plants that were growing in the area rather than giving herbs from the states. I came upon a vaguely familiar plant with big leaves – I grew up in southern California and was surprised how many plants were similar. I bent down to look closer and asked Odson what it was. This one I didn’t recognize because I’d only seen them in orchards: almond trees. They grow like weeds in Haiti.

Excited I stood up and said to him, “The leaves as a tea are good for high blood pressure!” At that moment, I realized that a small crowd had gathered around us and blushed because suddenly they were all talking at once. I asked, “What are they saying?” Odson smiled, “They are saying it is good for high blood pressure.” We were then able to recommend the tea to those with high blood pressure. It wasn’t important that I knew about the benefits of almond leaf tea, but the connection helped those who didn’t previously know they had high blood pressure.

Chronic Disaster

Mountain top removal site. Photo courtesy of Paul Corbit Brown, more photos at

The earthquake in Haiti caused an acute disaster that was all the more devastating because Haitians have been living in a state of political and economic oppression and chronic disaster. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Many struggle to get enough food. Few have access to clean water and the means to clothe and shelter themselves. The rates of malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases were high before the earthquake; and after, many suffered in an outbreak of cholera.

I began to wonder how to measure the success of recovery under those conditions; especially when those conditions are a result of decades of political and economic oppression. Coming home from Haiti was not easy. There is so much work to do there.

But the work is here, too. Throughout the world, corporations exploit poverty-stricken regions for labor and the extraction of raw materials. Chocolate, coffee, diamonds, trees, oil and coal are exchanged for blood, sweat, and tears all over the world.

In the U.S., Appalachia is the poorest region if you look at the human statistics, but one of the wealthiest if you look at coal production. The greatest profit exchanged for the greatest suffering. The coal industry has been destroying people and entire communities in those mountains for more than a hundred years. My great grandfather was one of them. Mechanization led to layoffs and my grandparents moved to California to work at the Kaiser steel mill and hospital. If they had stayed, it’s likely that my grandfather and father (who also worked at Kaiser) would have also died young from black lung disease (officially known as coalworker’s pneumoconiosis).

Over the last two years I’ve been to West Virginia twice: to see family and the landscape my ancestors lived in and to work on health-related projects. The first time I went, I spent a week with Roland Micklem and attended a rally to protest mountain top removal. I provided medical and moral support to Roland; an 81-year-old man who was fasting to demonstrate his grief for the mountains that are being cut down for coal.

The second time I went, I trained two groups of people to conduct a health survey. The data will be used to further understand the health impacts contributing to health disparities in Appalachia. People in that region die more often from lung, kidney, and cardiovascular illnesses compared to the rest of the U.S., so the National Institutes of Health has designated the region as a priority area for eliminating health disparities. These illnesses are likely a result of a combination of things including poverty, hunger, unemployment (and underemployment), limited access to health care services, air and water pollution, and the health behaviors influenced by all of the above. I’ve seen jars of blackish water from formerly clean wells. I’ve seen air filters blackened in just a few short days. If that doesn’t describe a disaster situation, I don’t know what does.

My experiences in West Virginia and Haiti and my earlier experiences as a street medic inspired me to become more prepared for a disaster and to teach others to do the same. I teach an introductory workshop on preparing for a disaster that can be followed up with conflict resolution, negotiation skills, non-violent communication, basic first aid/herbal first aid, disaster herbalism, emotional first aid/disaster psychology, setting up/running a temporary clinic and turning that clinic into an enduring project. The knowledge and wisdom shared in the workshop comes from a number of people and in the tradition of recognizing those who help us, I will say their names here: Mo, Charles, Noah, Aislyn, Grace, and Roger.

While I was in West Virginia this year, I visited some relatives and saw the house my father was born in. I touched the Spruce trees in a tiny isolated old growth forest. I found the new leaves of an orchid called Rattlesnake Plantain. I sang in the shadow of the New River Gorge. And for the first time, I saw the name of relatives in a graveyard in Norton, WV. I saw life and death and everything in between. The cycle of life is the here and now. The only thing I know. And I will work to keep that cycle balanced in everything I do.

Leah Wolfe, MPH, is a community herbalist and health educator with a background in health research and community organizing. She teaches as a way to contribute to decentralized sources of health care, which are integral to a sustainable, ethical, and affordable system of health that emphasizes public health and autonomy. She is an apprentice of the forest and field and is certified as a Wilderness First Responder. She offers consultations and herbal medicines on a sliding-scale or gift exchange basis to make treatments accessible. She founded the Serpentine Project in 2009 to restore habitat for at-risk medicinal plants and cultivate other important medicinal plants at  BLD farm in Ohio.


Building a Straw Bale Green House

Frame for Sun Room/Green House

In late 2011, Charles and I began the construction of a timber-framed straw bale green house that will have a hoop house attached. Mostly I helped dig the drainage ditch for the foundation, which will drain into a bioswale. The green house will increase our capacity to grow vegetables, at-risk medicinal plants, and other important medicinal plants.

The frame has been erected on a concrete slab that is left over from the days when a small-scale dairy farm was run here. The frame is made of wood sourced from BLD farm. Half of the roof is made of metal roofing that was left over from a house job. Plastic roofing for the south side will increase warmth in the winter for more delicate plants and create a place for us to escape the winter blues.

The straw bale green house will replace the hoop house that is made with plastic and stock panels.

We will build the walls from straw bales and cobb made from the clay that we saved when we dug the drainage ditch (note the clay piled to the right of the frame). The drainage ditch will flow out to the bottom of the primary medicinal garden where water loving plants like Gravel Root can grow. Soon we will build the walls and will announce a work-party/workshop for those who are interested in participating in a cobb/straw bale project. As we raise funds we will purchase a hoop house to extend off one side to replace the make-shift hoop house that is there now.

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an educational center for natural arts