At Willow Bend Environmental Education Center, a small group of students peer over Mike Masek’s shoulder as he stirs dried calendula flowers, oil and water into a large crock pot. The ingredients blend together into a swirling concoction whose scent fills the building’s mud-thatched interior.
“See how the flowers stay in sort of a stew-like mass? That’s exactly the texture that you want,” Masek tells the room as he ladles out a thick broth of oil and petals.
Those assembled are there for a workshop on skin lotion and body butter hosted by Masek through his Forager’s Path School of Botanical Studies. The goal of the four-hour course: to send participants home with the fruit of their labor and knowledge they can put to use in their own kitchen.
Forager’s Path is not new to Flagstaff—on the contrary, it’s been in town since Masek and his wife relocated from New Mexico in 2002. Upon arriving, he began offering sessions on herbalism, plants and plant foraging at New Frontiers, one of Flagstaff’s only health food stores at the time. Previous to that, Masek operated Forager’s Path in Albuquerque, where he also completed much of his schooling, learning from both indigenous teachers and other specialists in the area.
Masek still leads workshops throughout town, with Coconino Community College, Northern Arizona University, Willow Bend and the Coconino County Parks and Recreation department, among others.
The primary mission of Forager’s Path, he said, is to acquaint people with the “therapeutic potential” of local plants in the Southwest, both for nutrition and medicinal purposes; bioregional herbalism, he calls is.
“[It] makes you more self-sufficient for your own health. I use the word ‘empowering’ a lot. So instead of going to the store and buying a lotion, you make it yourself,” Masek said.
HERBALISM HERE AND THERE
Herbal medicines and herbalism—the study or practice of the medicinal and therapeutic use of plants, especially as a form of alternative medicine—have been used for thousands of years; in fact, herbs are the oldest and most extensively-used system of medicine in the world today, according to the National Center for Biotechnical Information. That and the use of herbal and natural medicine has seen a renaissance in the U.S. recently, according to data from the American Botanical Council indicating herbal supplement sales increased 7.7 percent in 2016.
In 2015, the World Health Organization reported that around 70 to 80 percent of people globally rely on herbal sources for their treatments.
While substances like Aspirin (made from willow bark), digoxin (foxglove) and morphine (made from poppies) are technically plant-based, Masek’s focus is much smaller and localized. He uses Mullein to paint an example. The slightly fuzzy, bauble-stemmed plant, technically considered invasive to northern Arizona, is one of the first living things to grow in the wake of a wildfire. It is used in many types of cough medicine, including one Masek teaches students how to make.
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“I always say learn the plants within a 50-mile radius of you,” Masek said.
HEALTH AND SELF
Masek’s own interest in botany and herbalism stemmed from, among other things, wanting to monitor his health more closely.
“It was a desire to be responsible for my own health rather than expecting health to come from a pill in a bottle or expecting a stranger to make me healthy. I needed to take responsibility over my lifestyle and manage stress,” he said. “It was just the principle of being self-sufficient and with the health of my family too.”
Masek is quick to stress that he does not consider herbal solutions the be-all and end-all replacement to pharmaceutical drugs if those are needed—herbalism is more of a way to supplement one’s care or as an alternative for those who might be seeking one.
“If you’re really sick, you should still go see a doctor,” he said.
FOUNDATIONS OF HERBAL MEDICINE
Back inside Willow Bend, where Masek and the students now sat seminar style at a large table, waiting for the body butter to cool so it could be spooned into small glass jars for each participant to take home, Masek began to discuss community. There are connections formed in his courses, he said, whether those be between fellow students or to the environment surrounding them.
This is the case for his year-long course, which Masek conducts annually, as well. Beginning in late February and running through November, Foundations of Herbal Medicine covers making cough syrups, skin lotions, salves, tea, liniments and more. Study of the human body is also part of the class, covering the respiratory, circulatory and other systems and organ functions in order to learn which herbs can support the health of which part of the body. The goal is show people the “endless ways you can work with plants in your own kitchen.”
Significant field work and field trips surrounding botany, plant identification and plant chemistry are also part of the course, with trips to southern Arizona and Colorado being two main ones.
“I think at its very core that learning herbal medicine is about reconnecting to nature and the natural rhythms and cycles of life. That’s one of the reasons I emphasize learning local plants—because you’re touching, tasting, smelling and interacting with your environment rather than just going to your local health store,” Masek said.
Masek is quick to remind that learning all the course and herbalism have to offer takes commitment and patience, plus a willingness to stick with the process.
“It’s not like now you’re [suddenly] an expert, it’s gradual. That’s why I call that course ‘foundations.’ I think if you really want to incorporate this into your lifestyle or what I call home-based homecare, a year-long program is a good start. It gives you the basics of helping yourself and your family,” he said. “[But] I always stress that if there is any doubt you should go see a doctor. Even the most experienced of us are still students and still learning.”