How Herbalism Can Help Support Your Immune System

Last Update: September 27, 2022

As we continue to weather the coronavirus pandemic, boosting health and immunity is top of mind for many. We’ve been putting steps like frequent hand washing into practice, but now is also a great time to explore new ways to support your immune system, such as herbalism. Herbal medicine uses herbs to promote health and prevent and treat illness. While you may not immediately view local herbs as medicinal, herbalism has persisted as humanity’s primary form of medicine, with a written history spanning more than 5,000 years.
Today, we’re chatting with Christine Buckley, a community-based herbalist, professional cook, and visual artist who studied herbalism at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism and the Center for Herbal Studies. She’s sharing easy ways to integrate herbalism into your daily life, what drew her to the field, and what inspired her new book, “Plant Magic.”

Hi, Christine! Tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello! I’m a community herbalist, professional cook, and visual artist currently based in Virginia, and I want to get people pumped on common weeds, the plants growing in our gardens, and the herbs and spices stocked in our kitchens.

In a nutshell, what is herbalism?

Herbalism is a system of care shaped by our needs and fulfilled by the land. It is responsive and adaptable, enabling each of us to learn to care for ourselves and our communities in partnership with the resilient weeds we find growing in our neighborhoods and farms and the common spices and herbs we find in our kitchens.

What initially drew you to herbalism?

I’m drawn to lots of different things—it’s my perennial habit. Herbalism was a way for me to integrate lots of things that I care about and interest me: cooking, nurturing, studying history, social justice work, being outside, making art, and growing food and medicine. Herbalism lets me do all of that!

How have the past few months affected your relationship with herbalism?

I really think that anyone can and that everyone should be doing it, just a little bit. Just as COVID-19 hit, I had the opportunity to work on an organic farm, and it’s been a wild ride, but this experience of growing food and figuring out how to get that food to people during incredibly stressful and unprecedented times is so rewarding. Farmers work so hard. I’ve learned heaps about growing vegetables, getting vegetables to people during a pandemic, soil, compost, and what my body is capable of and struggles to do. I’ve seen more bugs than I’d ever seen in my life. I came to herbalism by way of food and being with our food from seed to fruit has really strengthened my commitment to helping people understand how they can do herbalism at home. Herbalism is directly related to the things we’ve done as humans for tens of thousands of years to stay alive: gather food, grow food, and take food as medicine. It’s not a mystery, it’s part of who we are. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we can just get a little bit better at doing what we’ve been doing!

What is the first step that you would propose to someone interested in exploring the world of medicinal plants?

I encourage people to get outside and into their kitchens. The first step is just paying a little more attention to your behavior and what’s going on around you. Most people are surprised to find out they’re actually already doing herbalism. All it takes is encouraging and building on the skills and knowledge hiding in our day-to-day lives. Three common medicinal herbs we are likely to find this time of year are basil, thyme, and lemonade. Basil is great for diffusing brain fog—something I’m definitely feeling this time of year in normal times, let alone pandemic times—and helping us gain clarity of mind. Thyme is awesome as a face steam and lung support. If I have to make a trip to the grocery store or my skin feels like it needs a deep clean, I set up a pot of hot water and add thyme: instant spa and lung medicine. Ok, I know lemonade isn’t an herb, but its cooling actions are so necessary in steamy August down here in the Southeast. Sweet-sour tastes help chill us out, in temperature and in mood. I always have a big pitcher of cold lemon water in the fridge. After I juice lemons for a salad dressing or with pasta, I toss what’s leftover in a big pitcher, cover with water and put in the fridge. It’s tart and refreshing. You can always add a little simple syrup to balance out the sour taste!

Are there any immune-boosting plants that you have been drawn to recently?

I eat a lot of garlic. There are some plants that may be sexier than garlic, but don’t sleep on the everyday plants that have kept humans well for so long. There’s a reason garlic is everywhere: we need it—a lot of it. I don’t think common plants are here because of coincidence—they’re here because humans before us worked really hard to keep them around. We are meant to eat common foods like garlic often because they’re great preventative medicine. Garlic is strongly anti-inflammatory, and keeping inflammation down in the body means that it has a better chance at defending itself when pathogens show up. Plus, garlic’s antimicrobial actions help us fight infection. On top of that, garlic is really good for our hearts and our lungs. Also, it’s delicious cooked, raw, and fermented in honey.

What is the biggest misconception people have about herbalism?

I think it’s hard for most of us to think outside of the dominant healthcare paradigm, which in the United States goes something like, “Take this pill for that thing and call me in the morning.” Herbs, herbalism, and herbalists don’t treat diseases—they treat people. So the plants that work best in our bodies will depend on the person ingesting or applying them: their genetics, their lived experience, their preferences, and so on. It’s not as simple as just swapping herbs for medicines off the shelf.

What is your favorite aspect of the field of herbalism?

Herbalism dispels the myth that there’s a normal or right way of being in the world. When applied thoughtfully, it makes room for all of the variation that comes with being human. This is exciting to me—it’s so much more fun to think about how we can all help each other be our full selves.

How has herbalism influenced your work as a chef? Furthermore, how has it changed your approach to cooking for yourself?

As an herbalist I’m big into sneaking plants into meals, snacks, desserts, and drinks. Many of my clients tell me upfront, “I have to be honest with you, I know you want me to, but I’m not going to take a tincture.” I get it! Routines are really hard to shift and sometimes we can’t make space for something more, even if we really want it. I enjoy using cooking as a way to get more herbs into my own life as well as into my clients’ lives. I practice herbalism at home by integrating healing plants into my meals. Every time we eat is a time to take in something nutritious, delicious, and healing, even if it’s in a cocktail or ice cream! This spring I turned violets into a beautiful purple syrup to add to soda water and also made my own version of creme de violette for use in a cocktail. I love making herby sorbets and ice creams; it started off a few summers ago when my friend and I made winterberry ice cream. Since then I’ve made lemon balm ice cream, basil sorbet, and chamomile peppermint popsicles. The possibilities are endless.

Tell us about your book! What inspired you to write it?

I just want everyone to do herbalism and care about plants and each other! Herbal books have made a big difference in my personal and professional life. I wanted to be a part of that tradition. I’m so happy that Roost Books came along to wrangle my wild ideas into a beautiful, approachable book.

What are you hoping readers will take away from this book?

I hope people open “Plant Magic” and see the possibility for themselves in herbalism. I really believe that anyone and everyone can be an herbalist. If each of us knows just one plant, confidently and relates to that plant respectfully, then that means that each of us is equipped to share care with ourselves and the people in our community who need that plant. We don’t all have to be experts, we just have to be willing to learn and change and grow and share resources. I hope “Plant Magic” can gently encourage each reader to embark on an herbal journey.

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Kendall Lowery

Kendall Lowery is a current college student and a lifelong food enthusiast. When she’s not studying, she spends her time playing the flute, finding her next great bite, and working at Thrive Market as Content Contributor.

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