What’s in Jo Dunbar’s Herbalist Garden?
Jo Dunbar qualified as a Medical Herbalist in 1999, and has run a busy practice since then, having treated thousands of patients. She is the founder of Botanica Medica herbal apothecary, and she has a clinic in Hampshire.
Since 2011, she has been a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Europe’s highest regarded Druid organization, which has thousands of members worldwide. She is the author of 3 books. Her last book Spirit of the Hedgerow was the winner of the 2016 Local Legend Spiritual Writing Competition, and a finalist in the 2016 Wishing Shelf Awards.
Secrets From a Herbalist’s Garden was reviewed in the May/June 2022 issue of Spirituality & Health.
S&H: What does it mean to be a herbalist?
Jo Dunbar: Our official title is a Medical Herbalist. We use plants as medicine to treat a wide variety of health conditions ranging from anxiety and depression, to hormonal issues such as menopausal problems, to migraines, arthritis, exhaustion, and post-viral conditions.
We always treat holistically. Holism is a big word. In medicine it suggests considering the illness which has been brought to me, who it got there or what is the underlying cause. That may entail diet, lifestyle choices, or stress issues, which may include family or social issues, and so the rings of holism can widen. As much as possible, the consultation is used to talk through these issues, and then with that information and with that conversation in mind, I will devise a prescription. I always explain my treatment plan, and why I have chosen each plant so that the patient not only knows exactly what I am aiming for but is also in agreement and engaged in the treatment program.
The person may also have to be given dietary options so that s/he can make healthier choices. And lifestyle choices such as bedtime rituals can be discussed to help sleep problems (as an example).
What brought you to being a herbalist?
I was born to be a herbalist. I wanted to be a herbalist since I was a child living in South Africa but it was a medieval concept, and I had absolutely no idea that it might actually still be an option in this day and age. I decided to become a horticulturist so that I could grow herbs if I couldn’t heal with them. Some years later, I got a job as a head gardener at a beautiful estate in Suffolk. My boss and a rather famous landscape architect sent me around the country looking at famous gardens to derive inspiration for Heveningham Hall. Perchance, I was driving past the Chelsea Physic Garden. Right outside, there was a parking space, so I pulled in. I wouldn’t have bothered to stop if I hadn’t seen that place. I had no idea that tickets had to be bought months in advance.
As I walked towards the entrance, someone asked me if I wanted their ticket. I thanked them and entered. Immediately as I turned to the left, I saw the tent of The National Institute of Medical Herbalists, and my fate was sealed. I didn’t think that I had the brains nor the money to do the course, but I signed up, and it was only when I passed 3rd year, that it occurred to me that I was going to be a medical herbalist. I have never done anything else since that day—I live my own dream. I qualified in 1999.
What aspects of herbalism do you enjoy the most? Which are the most challenging?
I love all aspects, and nothing is challenging. I love it all. I love growing and harvesting my herbs. I love the making into medicines, the research into the latest information on herbal medicines, I love my patients and hearing their stories. I have a very busy practice, and so it is when I am on holiday that my creativity is able to bubble up.
What is adrenal fatigue, how is it manifested, and what is the most effective remedy for it?
The common name for adrenal fatigue is “Burn out.” So much is expected of us these days, and people work very hard, then there are the added stresses and strains of life like money worries, plus the immediacy of emails and no switch off due to the mobile phone always being with you, women who work and try to bring up happy families. We live in a high-speed non-stop world. It is too much and people try to keep up but so often hit the wall.
The most effective remedy is to slow down, get out into nature, meditate with a tree or really engage with your dog, lie on your back and watch the clouds, close your eyes and listen to the birds.
Herbally—calming herbs like Passiflora which calm down the adrenaline rushes. Licorice helps to support the very weary adrenal glands which pump out adrenaline and cortisol at far higher levels than we were ever designed to live with.
Can you share a few tips on how to harvest plants from the wild without harming the plant and the ecosystem in which it lives?
Well, the obvious thing is to leave far more than you take. Nettles taught me that lesson. When I am leaning over the nettles to pull Clivers out of the hedgerow or to snip elderflowers, the nettle gives me a little buzz, and then I know to move on. But always just take a very little, even if you are longing to take more—don’t. Leave nature the greater bounty and usually you will be rewarded with a greater amount of the herb further down the track.
I had that with wild lettuce once. I was in a field, really keep finding a basket of wild lettuce. I spied one, and I took a little from the plant, then thanked it silently. I spied one or two other plants and I took a little, even though I was longing to take the whole plant. Then suddenly—the scales fell from my eyes, and I saw that the field was full of wild lettuce. I had more than I could ever need. Plants are very sly and able to hide in plain sight. It’s all so magical if you are of that sort of mind to notice.
What herbs would you recommend for calming anxious nerves or decreasing anxiety?
My favorites are Valerian, Passiflora, and Melissa. There are others which I love too. Vervain, Californian Poppy, Hops. They all work beautifully but you might choose one over the other to suit each person. For instance, if someone is anxious but prone to depression, then I would choose Melissa. If the person is anxious with a tight stomach, then I would choose Hops.
You mention a number of times throughout your book that home herbal medicine is a path back to nature. Can you elaborate on this?
We are in a crisis. As a culture, we are divorced from nature and it is making us sad. We are part of the web of life and yet our culture has separated itself from the web of life. As a society, there is a huge amount of anxiety and depression, and yet when people reconnect with nature, they feel happy, content, they feel okay about themselves. We need to reconnect with nature, and nature needs us to remember our love of her, so that we can take care of this scintillatingly beautiful planet that we live on—and all her creatures. There are many paths back to nature, and herbal medicine is just one. It encourages respect for plants. Not only plants but the lowest level of plant—the plants which we despise and call weeds. Yet these weeds heal.
Our grandmothers and fathers knew the plants which grew outside their cottages, and they knew how to use them for medicine. For us—getting away from the screens, walking outside to collect your herbs is itself a healing experience. You look at the gorgeous colors of the sky through the leaves of the trees—dappled green on blue—so stunning. When we are out, we see the buzzard flying just above us staring at me staring at you—wow! Collecting the herbs, we enjoy the noise of the hedgerow—so sweet. The blackbird’s excited chatter, a squirrel shouting at me from a tree, a hare flees out from the undergrowth—all these things are exciting and wonderful—and that is just going out to collect. It’s bringing us back to nature all around us.
Then there is the magic of turning a weed into a medicine and using it to heal yourself—how wonderful is that? How can you not respect a plant that heals our ailments? That is why I see it as a path back to nature, and one which anyone can tread.
The last section of your book—the Epilogue—has an intriguing title: All Time from Ecotherapy to Ecophilia. Can you share some thoughts about what this title means to you?
I chose that title because we have to move from what nature can do for me, to what can I do for nature. With ecotherapy, although we have moved from seeing nature as a resource, we are now enjoying it as a therapy to heal us. But when we think of ecophilia, we fall deeply and passionately in love with the earth. Surely when you love something so much, you treasure it. I hope that we can hold that sense of ecophilia all through the year, and the years of our lives. Every minute of every day, and I hope that will change the world to a place where we live in balance and harmony with all the other beings who share this planet with us.
Read our review of Secrets From a Herbalist’s Garden in the May/June 2022 issue.
- by Ruth Wilson