This summer, I had an obsession with seed saving. It all started with a friend and former student of mine. She is a continual inspiration to me. She puts things into action in unique and meaningful ways, things that most people only give lip service to. I have witnessed her deep concern over social and environmental issues. I have had the honor to watch her turn her concerns into tangible actions that make a very real difference. They make a difference in the bigger picture; they make a difference to her community, to our town, to my family. In January 2013, she helped start a seed library in our town called the Five Valleys Seed Library. Anyone can go to our public library (where it is housed) and pick up a myriad of seeds, for free.
Why a seed library? This is what she has to say. When you borrow and donate open-pollinated seeds you help:
I was in from the beginning. I shared medicinal plant seeds from my own and my herb school gardens. My friend recently told me that our seed library is unique in the variety and abundance of medicinal seeds we offer. I am proud to be a small part of that. This year I have been inspired. My garage is stacked with egg cartons, each filled with seeds from a different type of medicinal plant. Examples are valerian, boneset, hyssop, motherwort, astragalus, wood betony, catnip, marshmallow, black cohosh, fireweed, California poppy and the list goes on. I have purposely chosen mostly easily grown medicinals in hopes that people will have success and come back for more.
Part of this obsession, for me personally, has to do with my experience with the FDA. Several years ago I owned a tincture company with my husband, herbalist John Goicovich. We had been making herbal extracts, firstly for other companies and then for our own business, for well over 25 years and had served our town and bioregion with tinctures that we had made with our own hands. We were proud of our formulas and felt profoundly rewarded by the many customers and clients who used our herbs and shared their healing stories with us. We had visits from the FDA over the years and always passed their inspections with flying colors. Then came the FDA’s new Good Manufacturing Procedures for Dietary Supplements. In our opinion, they were somewhat excessive, similar to the way small farmers are hurt from regulations while huge corporate farms thrive. With mixed feelings, we stopped manufacturing and eventually sold our retail store.
The good news is this experience gave us a renewed passion to pass on our knowledge. The FDA might require us to jump through endless hoops to manufacture herbal products, but they have nothing to do with all of us making our own personal medicine or growing herbs in our own gardens. They can’t stop us from passing on herbal wisdom to others. Our passion for empowering individuals and clients had always been at the core of our work, but this experience freed us, in a way, to pursue herbalism from another angle. We had always taught students and had developed longer and more in-depth herb programs over time. It was time to go all in, and in 2013 we started Green Path Herb School to train professional herbalists. How does this fit in with seeds, you might ask? I want every person who wants, to have access to herbs. I want my family, my garden, and my school to be a small part of the herbal revolution that I see on the horizon. Community herbal medicine, for all, and the knowledge of how to use it! That is my dream.
With every seed I gather, I have that intention. As I harvest from my beloved plants, I want to share their history. I feel like I could write a paragraph on every seed packet explaining each herb’s life and contribution to my garden. It would be a little love sonnet for each plant I have had the joy to grow and the honor to get to know. It would go something like this:
“This is Black Oil Sunflower Seed, an edible plant, a native to North America. The seeds are high in fats. The sprouts and flower buds are edible. You can make a tea out of the ray flowers (yellow petals), leaves and roots. This beautiful plant self-seeded in my garden over 15 years ago from our bird feeder. An annual, it’s progeny continue to grow every year. It has adapted to our unique climate and so will grow in your local garden with happy abandon. By the end of the summer they make a virtual sunflower forest that rises an easy 15 feet into the hot blue sky, letting our neighbors know something spectacular is happening over the fence in our yard. Since they were small, my sons grew them in their own small gardens and delighted in their quick progress and their ability to attract bees and birds. And oh the birds! Every year we get so many beautiful avian visitors, those that are passing through on long journeys south and those that brave our long Montana winter. They have sung to each other about the delights of our garden and taught their hatchlings how to find our yard. May these seeds bring similar enjoyment and wonder to you and yours.”
Planting a seed is powerful medicine.
Elaine Sheff has been studying medicinal plants since 1987. A Clinical Herbalist, she is a graduate of both the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies and the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine. Elaine is a certified instructor of Fertility Awareness and Natural Family Planning, a safe, effective birth control method used to avoid or achieve pregnancy. She has a long-standing clinical practice providing herbal consultations for individuals with health concerns. Elaine is a bestselling author and teaches herb classes throughout the United States. She is the co-founder of Meadowsweet Herbs and the co-director of Green Path Herb School in Missoula, Montana. You can often find Elaine in her garden, spending time with her amazing family, or cooking gluten free.