Staying Cool at Herb Camp: Ancient Oaks, Jimi Hendrix and a Botanical Tour of One of America's Top Herb Farms

picture of an herb farm

By Tessa Kappe

Hello herbal community! 

My name is Tessa, and I am a longtime nature enthusiast. My former focus of running gardening and food justice education programs for youth is currently translated into sharing that same wonder and passion for plants with adult herbalists. Through botany classes, plant walks and hands-on explorations, I hope to bridge the intellectual knowledge we accrue about herbal medicine with the beautiful and fascinating world of the plants they come from.

Recently I had the pleasure of joining fellow herb lovers to teach an herbal botany workshop at Oshala Farm’s second annual Herb Camp from June 24 - 26 in the fertile and sunny Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon. The love and care put into the preparations was clear, as campers joined and celebrated with West Coast herbalists and local experts for a weekend of nourishing food, educational workshops, and fun times on the farm.

Oshala Farm, one of only a handful of farms growing medicinal herbs on a larger scale in North America, was founded in 2013 by Elise and Jeff Higley. Born from Jeff’s background in vegetable farming and Elise’s in western herbalism, Oshala spreads good across the land in the form of local herbs, education, ethical business values like providing workers a living wage, and regenerative, ecological farming practices. Together with their crew they grow and process over 80 varieties of medicinal and culinary herbs on their certified organic family farm.

The common practice of purchasing herbs from across the world has similar consequences to our globalized food economy. Both rely on externalizing their true costs under unsustainable practices, depend on fossil fuel for transportation and storage, lead to greater carbon emissions and waste, and offer convenience to the customer at the cost of long term ecological and social wellbeing. As with any industry, sourcing locally helps mitigate some of these impacts, voting with your dollar for the land, animals and workers of today and for generations to come.

Not only are Oshala’s herbs of noticeably of higher quality (just look at a handful of their deeply pigmented calendula or nettles and you can easily see – not to mention smell, feel and certainly taste – their organoleptic excellence), Jeff and Elise are growing much more than exceptional herbs. They understand their work in the context of cultivating lasting community health, from the plants they seed and how they tend them to the social justice values they hold and their desire to serve as a model for others to do the same.

In addition to their dedication to land stewardship, Elise and Jeff share their wisdom in the form of talks, tours and other educational events. As leaders in the industry, they educate others about growing medicinal plants in ways that focus on soil health, community health and seed saving to preserve our medicinal stock and adapt to the climate challenges we face ahead.

Called by this shared vision and the promise of a restful country retreat, campers arrived from up and down the Pacific coast, some from further east, greeted by a friendly farmhand who helped us haul bags and tents across the half mile wide farm using our “shuttle” for the weekend, a classic green John Deere tractor with a wooden platform hitched to the back. Through the farm gates, attendees rambled happily behind and made their way across the vibrant fields of calendula, skullcap, rue, elecampane, sage, echinacea and chamomile to set up camp. 

The festivities began with a warm welcome from Elise and Jeff under the Big Oak, followed by a farm tour and orientation, and live music by local couple Fellow Pynins, who harmonized their banjos, guitars and voices as the breeze picked up and made the string lights sway under the trees of the Walnut Lounge. 

The schedule was filled with dozens of educational workshops taught by leaders in their fields (teaching, literally, in the fields), delicious seasonal food, and many opportunities to connect and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. 

Over the weekend, temps climbed to 102 degrees, but campers stayed cool in the shade of the walnut grove outside the farm house and beneath the Big Oak near the camp. There was plenty of fresh water and opportunities to dunk in the “river,” which wasn’t the Applegate River flowing nearby, but an idyllic irrigation stream running the length of the property, nestled in willows, St. John's wort, ripening blackberries and wild sweet peas. To balance the heat, we were treated to tasty cooling foods like jicama salads, mint and watermelon, and refreshing herbal beverages like Oshala’s mineral rich Be Nourished Tea. At the wellness table, attendees enjoyed an herbal electrolyte concentrate (think sports drinks without the additives) to help maintain hydration under the hot summer sun.

DIY: Make your own herbal concentrate using our Rejuvenating Electrolyte Blend below to stay cool in the summer months.

My botany class took place in the “hops house,” a charming outdoor rotunda with Humulus lupulus vines twining all around us. One of the students (a second time attendee who celebrated her 73 birthday over the weekend) shared that simply sitting among the vines was inducing a sense of calm. Hops are known for their nervine sedative properties, as well as being the most popular bittering agent used to brew beer (the fascinating history of monastic brewing and the use of hops to suppress their sexual desire will have to wait for another blog post!).

The workshop explored plant evolution, starting in the ocean hundreds of millions of years ago, and the radical, racy journey that brought us to the landscape we enjoy today. We reviewed the two part naming system known as binomial nomenclature, phytomorphology (the study of plant form) as a means of identification, dissected farm flowers with love and appreciation in the pursuit of deeper learning, and touched on how we may begin to move beyond botany’s colonial and patriarchal underpinnings, together. 

Topics for the other classes included:

In addition to workshops, campers were invited to participate in a community marketplace, where established and amateur herbalists and makers could sell and barter their wares. Offerings Included extracts, syrups, seaweeds, glycerites, herb plants, tie dyed and hand crafted textiles, bath and beauty products, books and tarot decks, and more! I brought a basket of colorful lavender lemon balm dream pillows I had sewn in the shape of hearts and moons, which I hope are now being enjoyed by bedsides, in cars, sock drawers, and in the hands of children for soothing, calming and smelling good! Throughout the marketplace occasional squeals could be heard from campers, young and elder, as they crisscrossed the sprinklers in the middle of the field to stay cool under the tall pines in the heat of the late afternoon. 

The final night included a talent show filled with original poetry and song. Herbal themes abounded, including messages of positivity, how Northern California girls know when the nettles are high, and one from the naturopath who had brewed up a special root beer to share with the group earlier that evening (yes, with actual roots from the farm!) offering a high suspense tune on mandolin also about nettles with only one word– “ouch”!

Meldrick One Horse of the Northern Paiute tribe, and medicine maker for Eagle Peak Herbals, read the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, sharing gratitude and respect for all walks of life. In the dusk of the warm sky, a bat emerged, then one more, and another. They began to do what I can only describe as a dance above the calm crowd, absorbed in the sentiment of Mel’s words. It was as though they were responding with their own show of gratitude in recognition of us gathering in the spirit of honoring and living in harmony with nature. After the address, one by one, they gently flew away and were gone.

Jeff himself, a former elementary school music teacher, kept the merriment going around the fire pit well into the night. The last thing I heard before meandering back to my tent beneath the stars was his soulful rendition of Jimmy Hendrix’s Little Wing as the sparks flew up from the campfire.

We closed Herb Camp weekend back under the Big Oak with words of joy and appreciation shared by teachers and attendees for the special weekend of learning and community made possible by the land, the Higleys and the dedicated Oshala crew. 

If this sounds like your kind of a good time, save the date for Oshala's 2023 Herb Camp from June 30 - July 2! You can learn more about Oshala and sign up for their newsletter, tours and events on their website. If you’re local, come by Scarlet Sage to pick up some of their herbs for your electrolyte recipe, or sign up for one of Verse’s Herbal Certifications to learn more about botany, herbal medicine and meet Jeff and Elise in their Growing Medicinal Herbs class, offered as part of the Apprentice Herbalist Certification. As an official sponsor of the school, students are given Oshala’s herbs in the supplies boxes they receive to support hands-on learning throughout their online programs.

For those of you eager to connect with nature and fellow plant lovers in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ll be leading a Summertime Herb Walk in Glen Canyon Park this Sunday, July 10, from 11:30am - 1:30pm and would love to see you there! 

Whether on the farm or in our everyday lives, may we enjoy the gifts of herbal medicine from a place of care for our earth and one another. 


In herbal community, 

Tessa


Sources

https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/meet-your-farmers/

https://www.organicgrown.com/blog/oshala-farms-nettles

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