Grow Your Own Prescription for Health
Story by Sandra Wendel
Herb seedlings are sprouting, but their beginning dates back to February—in Paul and Nicole Saville’s seed-starting basement room in Lincoln, in a cold frame in their backyard and in a hoop house shared by the fledgling farmers on land near Lincoln—all part of a pioneering program operated by the nonprofit Community Crops.
By summer, the seedlings will be nestled on the nearly half-acre Paul and Nicole farm this growing season.
Although the three-year incubator program run by Community Crops requires participants to grow (and sell) common crops such as cabbage and cucumbers, take a sneak peek between Paul and Nicole’s rows of Swiss chard and bell peppers. There you’ll find some of the more unusual varieties of herbs that will be for sale at the farmers market and with their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, which they prefer to call community-supported herbalism or CSH.
So if you’re looking for wood betony, ashwagandha, lemon balm, valerian, chamomile, California poppy, turmeric or ginger and a long list of other herbals, you now have a local source for freshly grown product through Paul and Nicole’s Spiritus Vitae Botanicals.
“This farm has been a dream of mine for several years,” Nicole says. She is from Seattle (but born in Lincoln) and graduated in 2012 from Bastyr University, a leading educational institution offering degrees in science-based natural medicine.
“From that I developed a love of all things medicinal—herbs. My real love is to grow and have my hands in the soil, so with this farm I connected the two,” she says. Husband Paul comes from a long line of farmers in Grand Island, Nebraska. He has a true love for the land because his parents grew their own food.
“The West Coast is saturated with herbal farms and herbal medicine,” says Paul. With their own Midwestern roots, he and his wife found the Lincoln area ripe for herbal growth.
Both hold jobs in the food industry: Paul at Lincoln’s Trader Joe’s, and Nicole at the Open Harvest Co-op.
Their philosophy is as old as human history, when we used to eat roots and other herbals as medicine.
“We as a society have come to rely on manufactured foods and manufactured medicines and big companies for our health,” Nicole says. “We are no longer taking personal responsibility for what we’re putting in our bodies, and this has led to an enormous disconnect. We are not connected to the earth, not eating true food,” she says in reference to processed and packaged foods trucked thousands of miles from where they are grown, sanitized and extracted, with food coloring and unnatural flavorings added to make things taste palatable.
“We are eating food-like materials—things that were once food but are not anymore,” she says. Examples include frozen pizza, anything you buy in a drive-through and foods that contain ingredients you’ve never heard of and can’t pronounce.
Herbal medicine plays into that scenario, according to Nicole. “Prescription medications are equally as manufactured or more so,” she says, noting that we are disconnected from our health.
“Prescription drugs in general only fix symptoms. They don’t focus on the root cause of things,” she says. Heartburn is one example. To get at why someone has heartburn, it’s important not to simply take a purple pill to make the heartburn subside, but to look at the person’s poor diet and stress level. If you focus on the main problem (possibly with an herbal), the other symptoms may go away, she pointed out.
Here, eat this root
We may have come full circle in accepting the importance of natural medicines from caveman days. The use of natural products has skyrocketed over the last five years, according to a recent trend survey by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although many of us have heard of echinacea or gingko, we may not know the names (or uses) of many of the herbs Nicole and
Paul are growing.
“One of the biggest herbs I like to tell people about is ashwagandha,” Nicole says. “Traditionally, it’s used for all things stress related, for mental health, libido and digestive health. It’s known as an adaptogen herb because it helps you adapt to daily stressors that can then disrupt other functions in your body.”
Look for ashwagandha in the gardens at Spiritus Vitae Botanicals and take it in capsule form (its taste will prevent you from taking it directly), or brew in a tea or create a tincture (made as an alcohol extract and dosed by the drop in water or juice).
Wood betony is another uncommon herb she’s excited to introduce to this market. She recommends taking the aerial tops and tearing or chopping the pieces into a small pile to put into a strainer or muslin tea bag or tea ball. Steep a tablespoon of the fresh bits for every cup of hot tea to calm the nerves.
But don’t ask Nicole to recommend a dosage or even a particular herb for what ails you—in other words, no individual diagnosing, no prescribing, no treating.
She can, however, discuss what others recommend. “I can tell you about the traditional uses of a plant. But it’s up to you to decide if it’s appropriate for you. I’m just the farmer and educator, not a health care practitioner,” she says. “I often ask customers, ‘What does your doctor say?’”
When it comes to uses and doses, she turns to her trusty guidebooks. One in particular that she recommends is Medical Herbalism by David Hoffmann.
Nine novice farmers take part in the annual program at Community Crops, a nonprofit that supplies land and even some fertilizer and compost in larger increments over a three-year training period. The land and supplies are weaned away from these farmers-in-training as they become self-sufficient.
The farm itself is in the middle of practically nowhere, outside Lincoln, and fully certified natural (the organic designation would be too expensive).
Paul and Nicole are the first in this program to grow medicinal herbs. After next year, they’ll be fully trained and scouting for their own land to buy in the area.
And the name, Spiritus Vitae Botanicals (pronounced spirit-us vee-tay)? It’s Latin for spirit or breath of life.
Where to Find
Look for Spiritus Vitae Botanicals at the Old Cheney Road farmers market in Lincoln and follow them on Facebook. They offer a community-supported herbalism (CSH) program with strictly herbal products four times a year, one for each growing season. The summer bounty for those who buy large or small shares may include body care products for sun-exposed skin, stress products, all-natural bug spray and deodorant. Offerings depend on the harvest. Sign up for the CSH at their website: SpiritusVitaeBotanicals.com. Past seasonal packages have included handcrafted products made in small batches, such as salves, syrups and teas.
Omaha-based lifestyle writer Sandra Wendel gave up trying to grow vegetables because the selection at farmers markets in the area was just too bountiful and affordable. She is, however, growing native buffalo grass, which seems to be winning over the crabgrass this year.