Making medicine on the mountain
WEST TOPSHAM, Vt. — The apothecary at Sage Mountain — where Emily Ruff strains tinctures, weighs herbs, and chops roots and flowers — looks like it sprung up from the forest floor itself. Gallon-size jars of lady’s mantle, Virginia snakeroot, bilberry leaf, white oak bark, horsetail, and rosehips the color of dried blood line the dark green shelves of the narrow room. Ruff and other herbalists will use the plants, many plucked from the abundant gardens outside, to make medicine and to teach students.
“The more fresh the herb, the more potent the medicine,” says Ruff, 38, who recently moved to this 500-acre sanctuary from Orlando, Fla., where she practiced herbalism surrounded by skyscrapers and sidewalks.
Sage Mountain, a short drive up a dirt road off Route 302 in Vermont, was founded about 30 years ago as a learning center for herbalists by Rosemary Gladstar, the 70-year-old “fairy godmother of the modern herbal renaissance,” according to Ruff. Last year, Ruff bought the land from Gladstar through a nonprofit and is preparing the space to host students once again. In the meantime, she uses the apothecary and the surrounding gardens, with more than 150 plant species, to make tinctures, flower essences, and medicines for personal use and for clients. The ailments that she treats range from anxiety to allergies to sleeplessness.
Herbalism has exploded in popularity in recent years, with tinctures and dried plants popping up in mainstream stores including Whole Foods and GNC across the country; Ruff says that popularity is both a blessing and a curse, because often people buy expensive, exotic herbs when they could harvest equally good ones from their back porches or parks.
“I’m not a purist, but I also just see people spending a lot of money on supplements and processed herbs that are not good quality,” she says.
High quality herbs thrive on Sage Mountain, which is not a typical office. Here’s what else is there:
A gallon jar of rosehips
Rosehips are harvested from the fruit of roses, just after the flowers finish blooming.
“Whole rosehips are really, really hard: you have to knock them with a hammer to break them open,” Ruff says, describing their insides as “fruity, meaty, thick.” “It’s a lot easier to open up the fruit and deseed them while they’re still fresh and then lay them out to dry.” She wears gloves to chop and dry the seeds to avoid the itch-inducing hairs on them.
High in vitamin C, rosehips can be used in tea for daily nourishment, Ruff says, or as an immune system-enhancer if you’re feeling under the weather.
‘Digestive aid’ tincture
Dozens of amber bottles and mason jars are neatly labeled with the malady they address: urinary tract infections, respiratory stress, grief. These are tinctures, made from immersing plants in alcohol or another substance for weeks, until the liquid absorbs the medicinal chemicals from the plant.
This particular digestive aid is a combination of dandelion, nettles, yellow dock, marshmallow, fennel, ginger, and peppermint; a dropper-full can be taken after meals.
“There’s always synergy when these plants are macerating together and kind of feeding off each other,” Ruff says.
Mugwort drying in a basket
Wicker baskets hang at the back of the apothecary, providing extra space where fresh plants can dry before they are put to use. This mugwort was harvested from a teeming field behind the house, close to where a bear recently wandered onto the back porch, crushing the ferns.
Herbalists often recommend mugwort, either in a tea or tincture, for vivid dreams and inner vision. Ruff says a few years ago she harvested and dried bundles of it in a cabin on the property, leading to “three nights of just the most rollercoaster, crazy, intense, out of my body but also lucid, but out of the universe, dreams.” She said the herb can also be used to ease menstrual cramps.
Castle in the back garden
This whimsical fairy castle rises from a bed of clovers, thyme, violets, and maidenhair ferns in the back garden, one of three small castles on the mountain.
It was built by a fellow herbalist who goes by the name Uncle Eddie; he aimed to pique the childlike wonder of the adults who would be working in the garden.
Swallow-tail butterflies flit around it (to be fair, so do swarms of vicious black flies), dropping in on the daffodils, irises, lilies, poppies, and peonies as they bloom.
In a few months, the top of the castle might be fully buried under the snow.
“The epic-ness of these gardens in the summer is equally balanced by deafening silence and white for miles and miles in the winter,” Ruff says.