Using Plants for Health Purposes: an interview with herbalist Lea Nicole

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By JR Valrey, the Minister of Information

Plants have been on the front line of keeping humans anatomically, as well as mentally, and spiritually healthy, since the dawn of humanity. Plants create oxygen, as well as create energy, that we call food, for our cells to function out of sunlight, water, and minerals from soil. In turn, humanity and other animals have a symbiotic relationship with plants. The carbon dioxide that we exhale, is inhaled and needed for plants to function. The urine and feces we produce, can be used as fertilizers in most cases. So it is alarming when the nation is supposed to be fighting off a killer virus like covid, with just masks and the washing of hands; but there is no mention in the media of strengthening our daily nutrition regimen. One of the most important things in life is what we put into our bodies; because it will allow us to either function or it will inhibit our ability to do so.

In the next few weeks, the one year anniversary of the shelter in place mandate will be commemorated, with the acknowledgement of hundreds of thousands, if not more deaths, being attributed to Covid. The reality is that nutrition is one of the main things, next to hygiene, at the base of truly fighting off disease. 

I have known Lea Nicole, a locally based herbalist, for almost a decade now. She has remained consistent in her study, and expanded her knowledge of plants through application. She is an avid seed collector, and an advocate of home gardens, among other things. As we approach the one year anniversary of this shelter in place mandate, we need to be thinking about small incremental ways that we could be more independent and interdependent, as Black people. With the monumental events of last Wednesday, January 6th at the U.S. Capitol, the writing is on the wall, that life may never come back to what we knew as normal one year ago, which in truth, wasn’t that great. As a society, we are going in warp speed to a destination that will only be determined by the people finding ways to think outside of the media matrix, or by a government that is salivating to implement a draconian technocratic state to control people, and squeeze every bit of value out of them, for the benefit of the capitalist economic order. So as we sit in the United States that is crumbling in every which way, before our very eyes, it is on us to adapt to the fight, and expect that the worst is yet to come. Check out Lea Nicole in her own words. 

JR Valrey: In this political environment as well as in the future, what will drive people to want to grow more of their own food?

Lea Nicole: In my humble opinion, exposure to the power of plants and learning how to work with them, or as I would say the spirit(s) of the plant. Once you learn how to work with a plant good enough, the plant itself will teach you a ton on its own. 

I also think there’s something highly empowering about progressive self-sustainability. You don’t have to know how to grow a food forest overnight, but little by little you can start with seeing what will grow for you, based on the resources that you have, and your capacity to learn about the type of soil that you can create for your plants to thrive. 

Imagine if even half of the people in any given neighborhood grew only a handful of fruits and/or vegetables, and used what they grew as a barter system to exchange with their neighbors for what they needed medicinally, cosmetically and for food weekly. Now I’m not saying it would allow everyone to go off the grid asap, but I’m pretty certain that would cut down on weekly grocery bills, and may even resolve a few chronic health issues within the first few years.

JR Valrey: What is wrong with food in the supermarket? How does heirloom fruits and vegetables differ from their supermarket cousins?

Lea Nicole: I think the issue with the food in our local supermarkets is the ingredients, that are in prepackaged items. The majority of premade/prepackaged foods usually have some level of sugar in them, and one can find a wide array of chronic health issues that arise from sugar alone. Likewise, sugar, along with lots of table salt, numbs your taste buds, disallowing you to be able to easily taste real food. Hence why so much of what’s premade amps up the salty and sweet intensity, to the point of creating specific food cravings.

When you’re dealing with the vast cross-cultural range of indigenous foods that one can grow, the diversity of produce and seasoning that can be made/applied allows one to have more options re what they can snack on/eat, and the natural ingredients one can use to flavor their food.

I feel that heirloom seeds are like history. They tell a story about cultures, and how cultures have influenced certain regions of the world. Heirloom seeds also reflect the true diversity of the plant kingdom and give you a lot more to work with, than say a handful variety of chilies and/or beans. To preserve heirloom seeds, is to preserve history.

JR Valrey: Can you talk about the role plants play in keeping your immune system healthy especially in the fight against COVID?

Lea Nicole: First off, I’m not an MD nor scientist, so I can only speak through what I have learned from others and found effective to use on myself. I think TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) has finely displayed how the power of medicinal mushrooms helps with immunity – my favorites on rotation are reishi, lion’s mane, cordyceps and chaga. Then you have the power immunity herbs more so related to the local medicine rooted in Native & Central American indigenous cultures, like elderberry, osha root, echinacea root, prickly pear, and Oregon grape root.

But you want to be cautious with immunity herbs, and understand the difference between immuno-stimulants vs. immune system balancers (herbs called adaptogenics). You also want to make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet, which to me would be as many home cooked meals from scratch, using raw, whole ingredients as often as possible. And of course,daily habits like learning about the power of stillness, meditation, or a relaxation technique that helps you balance the mind and align with spirit, are important. It’s truly your entire lifestyle that you have to structure, up around concepts of holistic health. And if you’re focused on health, you tend not to focus so much on all the sickness and death constantly being thrown in our faces. 

JR Valrey: Why do you think the government is stressing masks and sheltering in place to, supposedly, fight the virus, instead of nutrition?

Lea Nicole: I don’t believe our government has ever been in the business of health. Our government is a profit-driven/focused capitalistic structure, dependent on cheap labor of the majority, to uphold the wealth of the few.

There is, however, a growing amount of scientific, medical and legal debates about the justifications of lockdowns, especially considering how other states aren’t enforcing such strict measures, yet their COVID rates are lower than California. Soo it’s good to keep questioning everything and listen to all sides for these debates.  

I also do not believe our government promotes nutrition. Have you noticed how every few years they change their nutritional standards as well? 

We’re really blessed to live in the Bay Area however, because this is where a lot of the food justice grassroots movements began, and are still putting in the work through today. So you have pockets of a local culture that will always promote real, whole ingredients and real food. But not our government. 

JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about what role gardening plays in mental health? 

Lea Nicole: Gardening taps you into connecting with the power of elemental forces. Of course, the power of the land, but there is also a lot to be said about the capacity for plants to absorb the full range powers of the cosmos – the sun, moon, visible planetary transits for example. You also learn a great deal about the cycles of time working through seasons – that there is a larger creative, destructive and rebirth process being exposed through the land via seasons.

The power of the scent of plants is finely displayed in the field of aromatherapy. Plants can oxygenize and purify the air, which is good for neuron functioning. Also, where the plants start to grow and thrive, so does an entire new ecological system that attracts songbirds, bees, butterflies, etc. You can create a harmonious environment for yourself through the use of plants, to assist with pulling your attention out of anything potentially chaotic, and allow you to ground into your immediate environment.

JR Valrey: What inspired you to get involved in plant work (agriculture, horticulture, botany)?

Lea Nicole: After a good year of clinical work as an MFTI (Marriage and Family Therapist Intern), I went back to school for 3 more years to become certified as an herbalist and aromatherapist. I was tired of increasingly meeting with clients, that I believed to be overdiagnosed and  overmedicated. During that  time I also lost my aunt and my favorite mentor, Coach Amin Denny of Castlemont Football’s Department, to cancer. Then I kept hearing of others increasingly losing loved ones to cancer. So I felt that if disease and sickness was becoming normalized, there has to also be a way to increasingly normalize the opposite side of the spectrum, health. It took me back to the holistic traditions of cultures around the world who were living longer than the average lifespan of an American.

JR Valrey: What kinds of plants do you collect? Where are they from and why do you collect them?

Lea Nicole: Right now I collect a lot of heirloom seeds from around the world, and I particularly like seeds that are connected to indigenous cultures. I really like the wide variety of plants that come from various Asian countries, India, Africa, the Islamic World, Mediterranean, and indigenous North/Central America. These are all cultures that I’ve trained in herbalism through. This includes the culinary side of herbalism. Whereas American culture may give you one type of oregano for example, usually a variety related to Mexican culture, the world of herbalism would also expose you to Greek oregano and Cuban oregano. You’d learn which type of oregano is used for specific culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes.

JR Valrey:  Can you talk a little bit about your experiences growing food in Oakland? 

Lea Nicole: Since I spent more time at home this year, in response to the shutdown, I decided to learn how to grow many herbs and vegetables. All of them are still less than a year old, but growing strong.  When I lived in Oakland, I more so grew plants solely for herbalism. It was a requirement to graduate from my coursework. I grew motherwort, calendulas, poppies, lemon balm, and a few others, out of pots on my balcony. But what I did notice sprouting up all around Oakland, at the time, were patches of land where people were choosing to start to grow their own food and herbal medicine. I think these habits will become even more mainstream moving into the near future. 

JR Valrey: How can people learn more about gardening? 

Lea Nicole: YouTube is full of gardeners teaching anything from how to prep soil, to growing seedlings, to transplanting and growing baby plants. There’s also a lot of channels that teach about making natural pesticides. It’s really easy to find what you’d like to learn about. I would advise that you find a YouTube channel wherein the gardeners deal with a climate that is similar to yours. If there is a specific plant you’d like to grow, search YouTube for how to grow that specific plant. You can also search online for gardening bloggers that usually make videos.  

JR Valrey: How can people keep up with you and your plant work?

Lea Nicole: I’m hoping to get more involved in community gardens in Oakland this Spring – starting in March 2021 – and I will then be able to connect with others to build.

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