5 Things We Learned at the Laguna Beach Herbal Symposium

Laguna Canyon Road, a historic area in Laguna Beach where artists have been flocking for over a century, is a small alcove nestled in Laguna Beach that is often defined today by stop-and-go traffic and artsy roadside signs.

Yet there are still artisanal treasures, that people from around the world travel here to see including The Pageant of The Masters (a festival of the arts) and to find local gems at The Sawdust Art & Craft Festival. This region is also home to one of the three iconic Anneliese School campuses, which has students in attendance from their nursery years on to sixth grade. In high school, a close friend of mine told me about her memories going to school there— circle time in the morning, where songs are belted in 10 different languages.

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Gardening classes, mud and dirt from the playground used for art projects, enormous outdoor bird cages that draw your eyes upward as peacocks and swans greet fourth graders, real llamas at the top of the playground slide, and classes taught in teepees were all the norm. Thankfully, I was able to be a part of this magic during my recent participation in the TerraVita Herbal Symposium recently hosted in Laguna by SEEDS Arts & Education, a nonprofit focused on offering public programs in the Arts, Wellness, and Environmental Stewardship.

The program included a vast array of classes on herbal medicine and the associated health benefits therein. The symposium was presented in the form of plant walks, marketplace, workshops for all knowledge levels, and lots of delicious samplings courtesy of the Anneliese Schools, Herb Pharm, Pacific Botanicals, Earthroots Fieldschool, Frontier Co-op, and Oshala Farm. A highlight of the event, Shana Lipner-Grover’s bioregional herbalism workshop, persists in memory among the programming. Here are five key takeaways that every gardener (and burgeoning forager) should know.

Bioregional Herbalism is About Vitality and Connection

Bioregional herbalism is defined as the process of creating relationships with the plants around you. “This causes us to become active participants in our environments and step away from being a voyeur of life, of expectations without participation. This is an attitude, a lifestyle, a way of connecting to the sustainability of life,” Lipner-Grover tells a packed class of herb-lovers sipping Oshala “Be Good To Yourself” tea. The very essence of bioregional herbalism is sustainability (responsible foraging), vitality (the condition of the plant and surrounding location), and connection (what does it bring into your life?).

Local Herbs Matter Most

The most sustainable plant to form a relationship with (by using its essential oils, meditating by it, walking near it, steaming its leaves for your tea, etc) is what surrounds you in abundance naturally. Which leads us to the definition of a weed: “A plant that has the ability to survive in assorted disturbed areas, making it pop up in urban areas abundantly; a survivor plant. Or what you call a plant you see everywhere but don’t know its name. Which means these are plants that have woven their niche into human existence,” Lipner-Grover explained. The notion that weeds persist for a reason– which makes them inherently resilient and thus, useful– is a key facet of herbalism.

“Weedcrafting” Is About Ethics

How does one weedcraft? Weedcrafting is “recognizing the value of ‘weeds’ that present themselves in abundance,” Shana’s handout outlines for us. Nettles, Black Mustard, Shortpod mustard, Chickweed, Cleavers, Plantain, Miner’s lettuce, Sourgrass, Storksbill, Fennel, Common Phacelia (this is a pot herb and so should be processed due to its texture), and Prickly Pear Cactus (which is great for dyes). Once you’ve identified a plant you’d like to forage, refer to Howie Brounstein’s Wildcrafting Checklist (which is something of a tome to the trade) in order to learn ethical wildcrafting. Asking questions like “Is the strand away from roads and trails? Is tending the herb necessary? And if so, what does it require?” will enable you interpret herbalism in a new light. This is all a part of wildcrafting stewardship. Even wild plants can be endangered, so forage with respect and caution.

The Herbs That Grow Near You Are Best

Once you map out the herbs that grow natively in your region, it’s worth researching the local and medical herbs near you. In Southern California, you will find Sage, Sagebrush/Mugwort, Yerba Santa, Mexican Elder, Oak, Yellow Dock, Pine, Cottonwood, Red Root, Prickly Pear Pads and fruit, Yerba manza, California poppy, and Honeysuckle. We’d love to hear about the relationships that you form with medical herbs and weeds near you!

How To Make Nettle and Mustard Leaf Pesto

Now it’s time to devour! Try Lipner-Grover’s Nettle and Mustard Leaf Pesto– a great way to incorporate local nettles into your diet (allergy sufferers take note: nettle is a gentle, nutrient-rich antihistamine). The recipe calls for 1 cup of pressed nettle leaves, 1 cup of pressed black mustard or short pod mustard leaves, 1/2 cup of a nut of your choice (she prefers cashews), 1/4 cup of sunflower or hemp seeds, the juice from 2 lemons or limes, salt and pepper, and 1/4 cup of avocado oil. Your leaves, nuts, and seeds should blend through a food processor as you slowly add the liquids and seasoning. For maximum enjoyment, serve over vegetable pasta or a local salad of your choice!

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