Drive along the Columbia River Gorge and wind your way up the rural hills to the town of Corbett and then head up the misty road towards Larch Mountain and you will find a small herbal farm run by Jeff Johnson. He leases a plot of land so that he can primarily grow an herb known as ashwaghanda. This plant has long been known by healers in India to have tonic and rejuvenative properties. A few years back, Jeff not only grew to love its medicinal effects, he decided to pour his lifeforce into propagating, harvesting and making potent medicine from this plant.
Like many herbalists, Johnson understands the deep value of where a plant is grown, the soil that it grows on and the deep rich process of tending, harvesting and transforming it into a healing elixir. Wine aficionados have long had an understanding of the intertwining relationship of plant, farmer and the land known as “terroir”, the term for the ineffable qualities that give wine its very specific taste, body and soul. The same is true for herbs but we have often lost that appreciation in our rush to grow huge quantities of plant material, standardized and industrially packaged for mass consumption. Many herbalists are trying to help us get back to traditional ways of working with plant medicines, and that means cultivating a very personal and intimate relationship with them.
So what is it about ashwaghanda that caught Johnson’s attention so deeply? The plant itself is a simple small woody shrub that grows several feettall and is not particularly eye catching. But the root holds properties that can be key to healing anxiety, insomnia and nervous exhaustion. For many of us, our nervous systems are under enormous stress as we try to manage the constant barrage of fragmented sensory overload that is modernity. Ashwaghanda provides a different narrative, a healing balm for these overstimulated times. It reaches us where we have experienced deep trauma, deep disorganization of our nervous system as we pump out adrenaline and cortisol in a constant internal effort to manage limbic fear and adrenal exhaustion.
Ashwaghanda is an ancient rejuvenating tonic, or “rasyayana” as it is called by Indians. Traditionally it has been used as a gentle warming tonic to gently relax the system and build strength, energy and vitality. It has been studied and been shown to lower anxiety and depression, protect the immune system, improve cognitive function, stabilize blood sugar, and improve sexual function for both men and women.
Jeff talked to me about how trauma is at the core of our modern way of life and how ashwaghanda reaches those core issues like no other plant he has encountered. It truly acts as a balm for the soul. In my work as a therapist and herbalist I am often looking for ways to bring in plants as a way to help people heal more deeply. From Coastal Natives working with cedar, to the use of ginseng and codonopsis in China, to ancient Greek baths using mint and pine resin scents, the use of plants has long been intimately entwined with helping people to heal physically and emotionally. Plants continue to play a predominate role in helping people to heal throughout the world where industrial medicine is not prevalent.
In India ashwaghanda is traditionally taken by simmering the 1/2 a teaspoon of powdered root in warm milk and honey and then taking it before bed. It is also taken with ghee and honey for a deeper level of nourishment. Jeff offers ashwaghanda as a low alcohol tincture and also in a blend he calls the “Hero’s Formula”, a wonderful blend of plants such as wild rose, passionflower, yarrow and ashwaghanda.
There has been a massive resurgence in interest in plant medicines that started in the 60’s but is really starting to fruit in the last ten years. Herbal conferences are now common across the land as local schools and herbal companies grow at a fast rate. There is an enormous hunger not only to recapture the wisdom of working with plants for healing, but for developing a more deep and intimate relationship with the land and its plants. Herbalism offers a doorway into that world of intimate connection through observation, study, gathering and transforming plants into healing medicinal botanical elixirs.
The Northwest has become a hub for a tremendous amount of knowledgeable and brilliant herbalists. There are those who examine the chemical constituents of plants and study the scientific research on their efficacy, as well as the true mystics who wax poetic about the intrinsic nature of plants and their ability to bring metamorphosis. Lately there has been a strong emphasis on exploring how plant medicine can help people heal from emotional struggle and trauma; not through taking capsules of herbs found in stores with plant matter of unknown provenance and quality, but through connecting to the highest quality herbs, grown with the greatest care, attention and love. This is where Jeff Johnsson’s work, and others like him, comes in. Johnson is no mere farmer. He is asking for a revolution in how we approach healing that starts with the very land itself. He uses sustainable organic and biodynamic practices to grow the strongest plants, the richest medicine. He tends to each plant individually, gets to know their needs like a partner tending to their lover.
Jeff’s work with ashwaghanda is a mirror of our times. We live in a deeply challenging and precarious state as humans on this Earth. Our fragile existence here hangs in the balance. And our nervous systems know this. Our hearts and our souls know this. By gently weaving and tending the land with plants that are deeply restorative and richly healing, he is not only farming but also making prayer and asking a question. Can we change, can we shift towards a way of life that is based in strong gentle restoration, cultivation and honoring our deep roots, our powerful beating hearts?
To connect to Jeff and his medicine please check him out at Portland Ashwaghanda Farm.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health