Countryside: Kitchen Medicine: Herbalist Chooses the Plants at Our Doorstep

Herbalist and author Kathleen Maier at Books and Brews in the Rockfish Valley Community Center. Stone Soup owner Mary Katherine Froelich, left, asked questions about her book. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Kat Maier loves the types described in Ayurvedic medicine and has studied plant traditions in Chile as a Peace Corps volunteer, went to an internationally known herb school in England, spent time in the lush hedgerows of Ireland and learned from herbalists all over the world. But, “Don’t go online and order exotic powders and tinctures from afar,” she said. “Let’s start with the local plants that are appropriate for us.” Maier, owner of Sacred Plant Traditions in Charlottesville, and the author of the best-selling book Energetic Herbalism, spoke to an enthusiastic crowd at the Rockfish Valley Community Center late last month as part of  public radio WMRA’s Books and Brews series. She said our fertile mountains are known for high-quality, potent plants that grow wild and thrive.

“People all over the world demand Appalachian ginseng and goldenseal,” she said. Other high quality medicinal plants are often overlooked, either because they’re thought of as weeds, or because they’re traditional European culinary herbs that are so common that we take them for granted.

“Consider rosemary, thyme and sage,” she said. “Extremely potent anti-microbial plants.” She even has a place in her heart for kudzu, known as the vine that swallowed the South. It’s been used in Chinese and English healing practices for more than 2,000 years as a remedy for hot flashes, alcoholism, heart disease and other ailments. “But don’t plant it,” she cautioned. “There’s plenty around.”

The imported and prolific climber has many of the characteristics as black cohosh, a native herb that addresses many of the same symptoms, but has been decimated by the black market. “Kudzu’s an analogue,” Maier said. More recent scientific studies bear out the wisdom of our ancestors: in fact, there are many positive findings in peer-reviewed medical literature supporting the medicinal properties of the invasive vine. 

hickweed is rich in minerals and has gentle healing properties. Submitted photo.

The science is important to Maier. Although she calls herself a “recovering scientist,” she trained as a physician’s assistant and teaches that conventional allopathic medicine has an important place. “Use the antibiotics when you need them,” she told the group, “but then do the deep healing with plants.” 

Maier said that many different threads in her life came together to call her to work with plants. Raised as a Catholic, she had a deep appreciation for ritual and the sacredness of all life. Her work in the Peace Corps awakened her to the need to preserve traditional medicines. “I was in Chile,” she said, “and in the ’70s people were rejecting the traditions of their grandmothers. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, ‘no seas bruja,’ (‘don’t be a witch.’)”

As she studied medicine, she also kept her curiosity about the healing power of plants, with a lofty goal of trying to preserve a huge array of international plant traditions. Finally, it dawned on her that perhaps she should start with the plants all around her, and so she narrowed her focus.  “Sometimes you just have to spend hours, days and weeks just being with the plants,” she said. She told an interviewer that she’d rather understand the 40 different uses of one plant than the one use of 40 different plants. In her book, she focuses on 25 plants, a difficult choice, she said.

Mostly, though, she said, she was formed as an herbalist by her community. After studying medicine and herbs, she worked at an herb farm and in a wilderness school for traumatized young women. At a primitive cabin in Luray, she learned massage to help pay for the massive debt of her medical education. “People would come to me for a massage, but then ask me about natural ways to help themselves,” she said. With both medical training and herbal knowledge, she assisted at countless births.

The Mennonites, especially, became her teachers, she said. “For them, this was not alternative medicine, but their lives.” As her familiarity grew, she became a co-founder and teacher at an herb school in Washington, Va., and later moved to Charlottesville to establish Sacred Plant Traditions, where she offers an in-depth three-year course. She’s asked to speak all over the world, has founded a non-profit herbal clinic, and grows a great many plants in her yard in Belmont. After Energetic Herbalism became a best seller, she’s been more in demand than ever, but ultimately aspires to being obsolete. “If I was gone tomorrow, there would be so many people I’ve taught, or that have been students of people I taught, that none of this would be forgotten,” she said.

At the Rockfish Valley Community Center, she wanted to talk about chickweed, a weed that’s most obvious in the spring, but reappears in the fall, more lush and juicy. “I love how this is so gentle,” she said, “but so deeply powerful for MRSA and impetigo.” Another weed, plentiful in our fields: “Mullein,” she said. “Outstanding for the lungs.” 

Maier grows many of her own medicinal plants and advises her students to do the same, find them on their property or else patronize local shops, rather than taking them from the wild. She calls her approach––understanding and using the herbs at hand––“bioregionalism.” “We have everything we need right here,” she said.

Pumpkin Smashing Builds Compost 

Rivanna Solid Waste Authority hosts the 6th Annual Great Pumpkin Smash composting event at McIntire Recycling Center from October 31 through November 7, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Participants will be able to smash their pumpkins by dropping them into a large self-service composting container. Pumpkin composting is free of charge and open to City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents. 

Virginia Remains Dry

As of the week of October 16, farmers across the state report days suitable for fieldwork at 5.9, and weather conditions cool with scattered rain. Average high temperatures were mostly in the lower 70s. There are abnormally dry to severe drought conditions in the state, with the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia considered severe. However, with rainfall regional and uneven, the majority of farmers in the state reported adequate soil moisture. Farmers in Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, Loudoun, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, and Warren counties are now eligible to be considered for certain drought emergency assistance, as well as the counties contiguous to them: Culpeper, Fairfax, Madison, Page, Prince William, Rockingham, Stafford, and the city of Winchester. Farmers in these localities have eight months from the date of the disaster declaration to apply for emergency loans. For more information on available assistance programs and the application process, visit the Virginia FSA State Office website at or call (804) 287-1500.

Overall farming activities reported as the season winds down included hauling water to cattle and harvesting corn. Orchardists reported about 75% completion of their apple harvest. 

October has been chosen as Virginia wine month, now in its 35th year.  With about 300 wineries and 4,000 acres of grapes grown in the state, the economic impact of Virginia wine was estimated at $1.73 billion in 2019, a 27% increase from 2015, according to the Virginia Wine Board. This year, wine growers had a lot to celebrate: dry summers are good for wine grapes, preventing diseases, pests, and diluted juices. Some growers are predicting the best vintage in years. 

Local beef continues to bring top prices. Standout sales in October at the Staunton Union Stockyards were steer calves going for $315 per hundred weight. The Stockyard plans a bred heifer and bull sale for Nov. 14 at 7 p.m.

Those wondering about buying replacement heifers consider a complex array of factors, most of which are beyond their control: expected productive life, calf prices and interest rates among them. Two midwestern universities have produced free tools to help stockmen figure out the risks and benefits. Find the Nebraska chart at  2023 Heifer Replacement Values (UNL) and the Kansas calculator at 2023 Heifer Replacement Values (KSU).  


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