At the end of a week in Bastyr University's Bachelor of Science in Herbal Sciences program — after class discussions, tests, botanical lab work and garden studies — seniors do one last thing together: They cook.
On Thursday afternoons they meet in the botanical medicine laboratory for Herbs and Food class. Their program has already taught them to use herbs in tinctures, teas, capsules and salves. Now they learn to use the same health-giving plants in pesto, sauerkraut, soups, pickles, chutneys, infused chocolate and dozens more foods.
Instructor Alexis Durham says the class is a way to practice a saying attributed to Hippocrates: "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food."
"The class teaches students how to walk their talk," says Durham. "They learn how to integrate herbs into their daily lives. Then they're able to set a better example for future clients and for their families, friends and roommates."
The class is also a chance to make something creative after the pressures of the school week are finished.
"The lab is our last class of the week, so to end the week we get to cook and eat a meal together," says Dana Mockenhaupt, a student in the program. "Everyone likes that, I think. It really builds cohesiveness in our class."
One week in late February, the class walked outside and harvested early-spring greens: dandelion, stinging nettle and cleavers, which they made into a pesto with nuts and olive oil.
Another week they practiced fermentation, which produces probiotics to support digestive health. The class made pickled burdock root, pickled carrots and daikon (for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches), and sauerkraut with schisandra berries, thyme, juniper berries and black pepper.
"I was surprised at how easy it is to ferment things," says Mockenhaupt. "I always thought it was a dangerous, scary process, but it's really simple. A lot of recipes I'll take home and make again, but I'll make them my way."
Compared to supplements, food can be a safer way for children, seniors and pregnant women to gain the medicinal benefits of plants, Durham says.
"Generally, pregnancy isn’t the best time to start taking lots of herbs and supplements, but the body still needs support," she says. "It’s far better, and more gentle, to supplement your diet with nutrient-rich herbs and foods like burdock.
"As we age, our focus may shift to supporting digestion, reducing inflammation, and strengthening the vascular system. Students learn to address these issues with bitter greens like dandelion, with turmeric in curries, and with berries in syrups and fruit leather."
The winter-quarter class teaches that herbs are most health-giving when they're connected to a broader healthy lifestyle, Durham says.
"Choosing what to feed your body is one of the most important decisions we make every day," she says. "That choice affects everyone around us — plants, animals, the water."
The class includes a project on the politics of food to help students understand how industrial systems, consumer choices, and local and global communities are all connected. Students choose a research topic and present to their classmates on, say, farmed salmon, synthetic beef, honeybee habitat loss or nutrition in schools.
Argyle Baukol reported on the history of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, describing the native tribes that named themselves "people of the salmon," the way that dying fish feed nutrients into forests, and the construction of dams that made it possible to farm Eastern Washington state, cutting off salmon from the Columbia River headwaters.
"Have you ever seen a salmon climbing a fish ladder?" she says. "It's complicated."
Says Durham, "I don't want the politics project to be a total downer, so we try to be solution-oriented at the same time that we deal with reality."
Whether students go on to work as herbalists, wild-crafters, teachers, researchers, or if they continue their education, they can use knowledge from this class in their daily lives.
"Part of being a good herbalist is understanding how to live a healthy lifestyle," says Durham, an adjunct faculty member who graduated from the herbal sciences program in 2008. "And also how to live gently on the earth, with respect for other living beings.
"Also, there's just something meditative about the act of preparing food in a loving way for other people. It starts to instill a really healthful habit."
Learn more about studying herbal sciences at Bastyr. And see a class recipe for Avocado Cream with Blackberry Coulis.