"There are few things in the world as pleasurable as taking a nap on a chamomile patch," says herbalist Joshua Muscat. "It's an herb that doesn't get a lot of respect. It smells good. It looks good. The flower is cute."
It's a hot Sunday morning in west Berkeley, and Muscat is leading a workshop called Local Medicinal Herbs and Your Health. This session is one of the classes offered by the EcoHouse, a unique residence designed to demonstrate sustainable building and gardening techniques. Wearing a white T-shirt, maroon pantaloons, and Crocs, Muscat has a down-to-earth demeanor and a boundless gusto for herbs. He's been a student and practitioner of Western herbal medicine for the past 11 years, and his five-hour class covers everything from harvesting herbs to practicing holistic health care to preparing medicinal tinctures.
Twelve students gather on stumps, benches, and stones in the EcoHouse's invitingly rambunctious garden. We're here for a variety of reasons. Several people express dissatisfaction with mainstream medicine, while others want to enhance their home gardens by adding beneficent native herbs. One man is preparing for a stint at a Buddhist monastery by planting an organic garden. Another says he's here simply because "the EcoHouse is always inspiring to me. I just like to come here and get a little bit of that."
Babeck Tondre, a permaculture activist and resident of the EcoHouse since its inception, acquaints us with some of the special features of the site. Native plants and edible species grow in garden beds and containers in the ample yard. Bamboo shoots and ginger plants stretch into the air, towering leafily over the flowering parsnip and varietal poppies. A bathtub fountain burbles peacefully beside a straw bale toolshed designed by a local landscape architect.
There's a rustle in the yard and a wiry man with glasses and an outdoorsy look rushes up to Muscat, trailing a freshly plucked specimen of the herb of the hour. As we pass the chamomile around, Paul Johnsen dives back into the foliage to search for another plant. Johnsen knows the garden well. A horticulturist, he became a part of the three-person EcoHouse-hold last year and works with Tondre to continually upgrade the site. Almost everything in the garden has a teaching function, including hand-built structures and animal life, which are part of the garden's ecosystem. The toolshed roof will be renovated during an upcoming workshop on planting a living roof garden. Even the ducks will have their day.
Frances and Nate are brother drakes who waddle about the yard quacking amicably at passers-by on the long stretch of sidewalk that borders the garden's west-side fence. Parents and children greet the two birds by name. In addition to winning the Mr. and Mr. congeniality award, the ducks keep the slug and snail population to a minimum. This month Frances and Nate will star in a workshop about raising ducks and chickens in your yard. Omelet aficionados have doubtless already sniffed out another potential benefit of raising female fowl: harvesting eggs. The EcoHouse did, at one point, foster a female duck, who purportedly laid large and delicious eggs throughout the yard. She died, though, so there won't be eggs in the garden until the mail-order chicks arrive.
But other organic edibles abound, and during the lunch break Tondre encourages us to "forage in the yard." There are low-water apple trees that yield a tart, green fruit and quince trees and raspberry bushes. Someone passes a basket of freshly picked gooseberries around the class. Their papery sheathes enclose a berry the size of a cherry tomato, and the intensity of the sharp, sweet flavor is akin to having a pellet of freshly cut grass applied directly to the taste buds.
Refreshed by garden goodies, we're ready for more learning. Muscat talks about the importance of harvesting herbs responsibly.