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HERBalachia sewing seeds of wisdom

Top photo, HERBalachia students forge for wild foods at Blackberry Blossom Campground where they have graduation. Above, Michelle Bouton, founder of HERBalachia, holds a master’s degree in herbalism and Chinese medicine. (Contributed photos)

By Richard Rourk

Unicoi County is home to one of the most unique schools in the region.

HERBalachia, the first herbal training school in East Tennessee, has connected herbalists, growers, and educators by promoting safe usage of herbs since 2016.

According to HERBalachia founder Michelle Bouton, the school features a faculty of 13 professionals and their community-based education balances traditional Appalachian herbal wisdom with modern evidence-based scientific knowledge.

Bouton had the vision to see that this region should be a hub for herbal education.

“I opened my acupuncture clinic in Johnson City five years ago, but I live in Limestone Cove and when I realized we had no herbal education on our side of the mountain, while the Asheville area boasts five schools, it seemed natural to create opportunities to share this knowledge with our community,” Bouton said. “More and more, I find myself steering my focus more toward Erwin and Unicoi County, that is where my heart is.”

Currently, HERBalachia offers two programs: the Herbalist Lifestyle Program, which is one weekend per month March-September. It is aimed at beginners who want to learn to identify local plants, to make medicine out of them, and to connect with others in our area who have this interest.

“I am very proud of our graduates, several of whom are creating their own herb-related businesses: Micky Morton of Love Roots Farm sells herbal products and produce at JC Farmers Market, and Lesley Setchim of Appalachian Alchemy sell herbal products online,” Bouton said. “In each of our previous lifestyle programs, almost 40 percent of our students were medical professionals, so this year for the first time we offered our Advanced Herbal Medicines class series.”

For Bouton, this meant reaching out to a local university.

“I coordinated this in partnership with ETSU College of Nursing, and nurses are able to receive continuing education credits from our classes. I feel this is very valuable because so many patients these days have questions about using herbs, but typically physicians have no training nor the time to spend discussing herbs with patients,” Bouton said. “I hope the nurses will be able to put their new herbal knowledge to use immediately counseling patients.”

According to Bouton, students of HERBalachia can find all they need in their own communities. “When someone signs up for classes and learns more about the herbs in their backyard, they are spending time both connecting with the plants around them and tuning in to how those plants affect their body and these two things, to me, are the best first steps we can take toward improving our health,” Bouton said. “Many people use herbs like drugs – this herb for headache, that herb for sleep.”

Bouton hopes that by learning more about herbal remedies, the community can shift their perspective from treatment to prevention.

“This simplistic modern perspective that we have to wait until we are sick or symptomatic before we seek help is basically like a car mechanic model, but our bodies are much more sophisticated, and we are designed to heal ourselves,” Boutons said. “Herbalism is a much deeper art and science than that, and at their most powerful when we learn to use them as a preventative tool.”

According to Bouton, prevention could lead to a reduction in suffering.

“If we know we are prone to catching colds in winter, we prepare and take immune tonics and if we have belly issues when we are stressed, we leave a digestive formula on our desk at work and take it at lunchtime but when we understand our body’s weaknesses and which plants in our back yard we can use every day to support that, that is really valuable wisdom,” Bouton said. “The fact that over 70 percent of the world’s population uses herbs as their main form of healthcare and that we have used them successfully for thousands of years should be an indicator that we are missing the boat if we ignore herbals.”

Bouton points out that in many illnesses, herbal remedies have a higher success rate over pharmaceutical options.

“Currently, there is no pharmaceutical more successful in treating malaria than Artemesia, and even some of the new antibiotic-resistant infections still respond to herbs,” Bouton said.

According to Bouton, it is vital that we take pride in our region and the bountiful resources the region provides.

“I believe our region should be so proud of our natural resources, and I am glad to see progress being made toward highlighting and protecting them because we have herbal species that grow nowhere else in the whole world and that is why the Chinese buy as much of our ginseng as they can,” Bouton said. “Our herbs, our ability to grow them plentifully in a clean environment with clean water, and our herbal traditions are part of our identity as well as extremely valuable and I hope I can help our community see that more clearly because I want us to celebrate our great fortune and protect it more.”

Bouton is hopeful that the community gets involved in understanding and appreciating our natural resources.

“For those interested in learning more about herbalism, I hope to be able to continue free classes in the future,” Bouton said. “Our free Wild Foods Tasting event at Erwin Outdoor Supply had about 45 people attend; they said it was the largest crowd yet for any of their events, and last year, I hosted a Foraging Wild Foods class in Unicoi, and a technical glitch in the registration for the event did not cut it off at 25 people so we had about 115 people show up for the event. It was a little stressful, but I feel that is a huge indicator that people in this area want more of this information.”

According to Bouton, HERBalachia is teaming with Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) to offer a free webinar that began last month, called “Seed to Medicine Chest.” The webinar is focused on providing knowledge about cultivating medicinal herbs and creating herbal products for your health and home.

The “Seed to Medicine Chest” series includes three sessions with webinars limited to 100 viewers per session. Webinars are held in two parts with a break in between for viewer comfort. Viewers can register for the entire series or for individual webinars. The webinars are free, but registration is required separately for each webinar session. For a list of classes and to register, please visit https://asdevelop.org/agroforestry.

For Bouton, it is important to teach these medicinal benefits to the next generation.

“Our grandparents used this medicine, and it is part of our inheritance as Appalachian folks,” Bouton said. “I am concerned, also, about these traditions being lost and dying out, so one of the missions of HERBalachia is to document and share recipes, stories and seeds from this area.”

Bouton is determined to see her dream continue to become reality.

“My dream in the next few years is to continue building up interest in herbs and develop support for a Unicoi County herbal education facility and botanical sanctuary,” Bouton said. “Four years ago, I had never run a school or put on a festival, so anything seems possible.

For more information, follow HERBalachia on Facebook or check out their website at herbalachia.com.