As medicinal plants such as echinacea and goldenseal gain widespread recognition and use, wild sources can suffer from overharvesting. Muscat recommends patronizing small businesses such as Lhasa Kharnak in Berkeley (www.herb-inc.com) or Scarlet Sage in San Francisco (www.scarletsageherb.com), which utilize sustainably grown or harvested plants. A group called United Plant Savers (www.unitedplantsavers.org), dedicated to preserving native medicinal herbs in North America, provides a list of endangered herbs, as well as one of responsible plant purveyors.
The best way to ensure a good source is to grow herbs in your own garden. Since space is a limiting factor for many of us, Muscat encourages urban gardeners to think collectively when deciding what to plant. As in, I'll grow yarrow in my container garden if you grow lemon balm in your window box.
Devising tactics and sharing resources like this is a primary goal of the EcoHouse, according to Tondre. "Karl would want me to say how this project fits into the larger community," Tondre says. The Karl he's referring to is the late Karl Linn, a community activist and landscape architect who spearheaded the EcoHouse project in 1999. Though Linn passed away last year, his vision and presence remain vividly felt here.
Classes at EcoHouse are $15 and no one's turned away for lack of funds. Expanding its community reach and resources, the EcoHouse recently joined forces with the Ecology Center, a well-known Berkeley nonprofit that offers a wealth of green resources to compliment the action-packed EcoHouse workshops. The center acts as an umbrella organization that hooks green-minded volunteers up to relevant activist organizations and also operates an information desk that answers such practical questions as "Where can I get worms for my worm bin?" The center also houses the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), which offers seeds for free; the price tag is a promise to bring seeds back to the library the following year. Beck Cowles, program director at the Ecology Center, speaks enthusiastically about the partnership with EcoHouse. "One of the neat things is that because it's a demonstration site, people are able to come and get hands-on experience in learning to live more sustainably in the city."
Back to the herbal-medicinal course at hand: just spending time in the garden will help fix what ails you, Muscat says. He opposes the quick-fix, pill-happy culture of mainstream medicine. Muscat advocates for Western herbal medicine as an alternative or compliment to mainstream medical practices. "It just doesn't work within a capitalist framework," he says. While herbal applications can remedy certain short-term problems (lemon balm: great for soothing herpes sores!), Muscat says that his holistic approach is more effective in treating long-term ailments, such as chronic fatigue and sinus allergies. Putting his mugwort where his mouth is, Muscat runs the San Francisco Botanical Medicine Clinic (www.sfbmc.org), an organization that provides low-cost treatment using herbal remedies and a holistic approach to health care.
After several sun-beaten hours among the plants, our fog-accustomed bodies are responding with proto–heat stroke. So Muscat pitches a canopy and retires to the dappled shade of a prune tree to gleefully demonstrate the mad-scientist-meets-celebrity-chef aspect of herbal medicine: preparing tinctures. His working surface is made up of a warped wooden table, upon which rest a heavy-duty blender, two quart-size bottles of Everclear, and an "I [Heart] My Guru" mug.
As Muscat blends, sifts, measures, and shakes, I inadvertently engage in the ancient practice of urtication, otherwise known as flogging with nettles, as I brush against a prolific member of the genus Urtica growing next to my stump seat. For a moment I ponder seizing the bull by the horns or, um, the nettle by the hair?, and continuing the flagellation.