There is a trend in America today of people dedicated to bringing their craft to the highest level. Think craft brew masters, micro-batch chocolatiers and coffee roasting artisans. Their aim is to bring forth and cultivate the best of the earth.
In light of the “farm to table” movement, I started thinking: what about “farm to medicine cabinet”? Are there people who are growing Chinese herbal medicines in biodynamic, organic, and craft ways?
Of course, there are people selling herbs at the farmers’ market. I salute that! But I am uniquely interested in the cultivation of Chinese herbal medicines, plants with 4500 years of clinical application. The Chinese herbal medical system isn’t about dropping a single herb in water and drinking it; the formulas are complex, and correspond to an entire system of medical philosophy.
As a practioner of Chinese medicine, I have used herbs that come from China but are third party tested for heavy metals, pesticides and the like. But let’s face it: with so many middlemen, authenticity and purity are impossible to truly verify.
I am interested in finding a whole new level of herbs: for me, for my family and for my patients.
So one a late October day I took two planes, rented a mammoth pickup truck and headed into the Smokey Mountains to look for my answer. That is, to look for a man named Joe Hollis.
Getting to Hollis’ farm, Mountain Herbs, was not easy. Roads were hardly marked, and I ended up at least twice in dead ends near the Appalachian Trail. At one point I had to throw the truck in reverse to catch the local mailman to ask for directions.
Just as I thought I was lost again, I saw a collection of small wooden buildings interspersed in a rustic, high elevation garden of Eden. I had arrived.
I followed the path up the hill, and all around me medicinal plants emerged. It was as if no one had planted them; there were no neat rows or apparent organization in the way I had imagined, they were haphazardly mixed together, sticking out at odd angles.
I walked by a mud wall with a pitchfork leaning against it, and a man appeared from behind the wall. It wasn’t Joe Hollis, but a 4-year resident of the farm named Jeff, who was just the guy I was looking for. Jeff was a long haired man in his early 30s in a hole-ridden straw hat, with a single-minded focus on the cultivation of herbal medicine. Not only did he know a great deal about the application of European herbs, prairie herbs, Appalachian herbs and Chinese herbs, he actually knew how to grow them and when to harvest them.
Jeff gave me a tour of the gardens and green houses, and introduced me to the plants I have used for over a decade but had never seen growing from the ground: He Huan Pi, Sha Ren and the like.
At the end of the tour I entered a building with what seemed like a thousand tomes on herbal medicine and a collection of tinctures, all made on-site. The herbs were grown there, dried there and preserved in alcohol that was also distilled on the property.
Jeff instructed me to help myself to bottles of whatever I liked. I could fill the bottles myself, he told me as he left, “$15 each, you can just leave the money on the table.”
I opted for a number of tinctures, including artisanal rose preserved in glycerin, known as Wei Gui Wa in Chinese, know for calming anxiety.
It turns out that this farm is not exactly set up for commerce. They do not accept credit cards or ship their tinctures. It seems that I’ll have to return soon, into the mountains to replenish my stores and further my inquiry into how to bring the best herbal medicine back home to my practice.
You see, I could keep prescribing the same herbs I’ve been using for a decade and half, the same ones I was trained with. But if I did that, I’d be missing out on the current renaissance in cultivation and preservation.
Unlike the commonplace herbs found in Chinatown shops and many acupuncture offices, the people at Mountain Herbs are cultivating wild crafted, organic therapeutic Chinese herbal medicine. They are sun drying the herbs to make into teas, or preserving the herbs in alcohol they distill themselves.
To me, it’s worth the extra effort and attention to find herbs that are cultivated and cared for in this way. Finding products that are truly “farm to medicine cabinet” is important, because that is the best way to reap the earth’s healing bounty. My quest to find farmers with the singular focus of coaxing the best herbs from the earth began at Mountain Herbs with Joe Hollis and Jeff, but it won’t be over until I can offer the best herbal medicines, all the time.