Helen of the Fields
Receiving Traditions of Plant Knowledge
When we meet up over a pot of tea, herbalist Helen Leavitt has just finished teaching her yoga class at Newmarket Mills Yoga. She seems happy to unwind another hour before going home to her two little ones. With our peach rooibos steeping, I ask Helen how she named her herbal practice Althaea Wellness Education. What she tells is a story of celestial signs and ancient myths, unfurling like the steam from our tea.
Vice President of the New Hampshire Herbal Network and organizer of the New England Women’s Herbal Conference children’s program, Helen is impressive. She is also approachable. Her story’s first lesson for me is on herbal allies: “With so many plants and uses, you can get a little manic unless you remember you don’t have to know it all at once. You can bring them close to you one at a time.”
Plant allies by her side, Helen is resident herbalist at Exeter’s Laney & Lu café where owner Jennifer Desrosiers treasures her work and libations: “She’s a wealth of knowledge, an herbal scientist. Her creations help people understand the healing power of food.”
Before her positions and praise, those celestial signs illuminated Helen’s path to herbalism. It began when a 2005 freshman Anthropology class at UNH galvanized Helen to address global food insecurity. She started volunteering in UNH’s organic garden and was nominated president her junior year. After two years overseeing the garden, and with her 2009 graduation looming, a chance query to a professor garnered Helen her first postgraduate job, a research assistantship recording the history of Lee’s Burley-Demeritt farm — today’s UNH organic dairy farm.
During her assistantship, Helen was inspired by the history of Martha Burley. An unlikely female farm overseer from 1865- 1888, Martha kept a satchel tied to her waist to gather the property’s medicinal herbs and administer them to people. As part of her research, Helen grew some of Martha’s herbs using the astrological and celestial patterns that influenced some 19th century gardeners, star-guidance Helen first experienced during a 2008 semester in Nepal studying agricultural ritual in Tibetan Buddhism.
When her assistantship ended in 2011, Helen entered the formal six-month herbal apprenticeship at Lee’s Misty Meadows Herbal Center and completed it to become the herbal center’s garden manager. Two years later, she and husband Jason had their first son, Homer. He spent his first summer in the garden with mom, bringing Helen closer to her Grecian-inspired practice.
Helen of Troy. Jason and the Argonauts. How fitting that the two Greek namesakes liked the name Homer. And when Linus spontaneously came to mind for their second son, Helen was tickled to find he was Hercules’ music teacher. As the Fates would have it, Helen’s favorite herbal ally — Althaea Officinalis, Latin for “marshmallow” — has its own Greek root in altho, meaning “to cure.” So after saying goodbye to Misty Meadows in 2014, the time and name for Helen’s independent herbal practice was clear, as was her mission: “Our generations have missed out on receiving traditions of plant knowledge. I want to make this wisdom more accessible.”
Visit AlthaeaWellnessEducation.com to learn about Helen’s upcoming Laney & Lu workshops and a January 2017 yoga and plant medicine retreat she’ll run at Costa Rica’s Finca Luna Nueva Lodge. Wherever you encounter her, Helen will inspire you: “Herbalists don’t cure people; they give them the tools to care for themselves.” Here are Helen’s tools for a crisp, seasonal infusion.
• Wild spring greens (violet, nettle, dandelion, plantain, chickweed)
• Raw honey (optional or substitute maple syrup or molasses)
• 32-oz organic raw apple cider vinegar (try Vermont Village, available at Market Basket)
• Clean kitchen towel
• 32-oz canning jar
• Glass bowl
• Fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth
• Narrow neck bottle with cork
Procure fresh, untreated greens from your yard or local farm, away from the roadside, or visit your local herb shop for fresh or dry herbs. Air herbs on a clean towel for a few hours or overnight to evaporate water content, lessening incidence of rancidity. Gently bruise greens, rubbing between palms, and loosely fill jar with herbs ¾ of the way. Add small portion of honey to help preserve infusion (add more to taste later or leave out altogether). Fill to top with apple cider vinegar and cover with a clean lid. Keep temperature-stable, away from direct sunlight, up to six weeks. Once or twice daily, shake and infuse brew with healing intentions. Feel free to taste-test and stop the infusion when you decide it's ready. Strain infusion from plant material, transfer to clean bottle and cork. Try a daily shot to support natural detoxification and immune, respiratory, digestive and liver functioning. Combine with hot water and lemon for a soothing tea. Add to sparkling water over ice for an herbal soda. Or use as an ingredient in a wild-crafted cocktail!