“I wanted to create something that made herbal medicine accessible,” said Steph Zabel, a curatorial assistant at the Harvard Herbarium and founder of Herbstalk, a two-day educational festival based in Somerville that features classes on how to use herbs and plants, like hazel blossoms, seen here.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Hearkening to herbs

4 min read

Beyond work, Zabel studies and uses them, advising on their qualities

Inside the Harvard University Herbaria, Steph Zabel is a curatorial assistant who spends her days digitizing collections of dried plant specimens. Sometimes she jokes that the botanical depository is like a “plant mortuary,” since it contains the preserved remains of specimens from around the world.

Outside work, she tends living and local plants, running her own herbalism businesses, which are undergoing a major growth spurt. That’s because herbalism — “using plants for wellness and health benefits” — is experiencing a renaissance, according to Zabel.

“Humans have co-evolved with plants, using them for healing and medicinal purposes,” she said. “They’re the oldest form of medicine.”

So two years ago Zabel founded Herbstalk, a two-day educational festival based in Somerville, featuring classes on how to use herbs and for what purposes, complete with music, local vendors, and more. “I wanted to create something that made herbal medicine accessible,” she said. “Some people feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start.”

That concern also led Zabel to start Flowerfolk Herbal Apothecary, through which she conducts holistic herbal consultations with individuals, evaluating health concerns, and “discussing how dietary and lifestyle changes can complement herbal recommendations.”

Zabel cites her South Carolina upbringing as the catalyst for her earthy interests. “I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house in the country, walking in the woods,” she said. “And my grandmother loved plants.”

She attended Clemson University, studying horticulture and biological science before pursuing a master’s degree in ethnobotany at the University of Kent at Canterbury, U.K. She has since studied herbs during a three-year clinical apprenticeship with the CommonWealth Center for Herbal Medicine, at the Boston School of Herbal Studies, and elsewhere.

Zabel doesn’t dismiss conventional medicine, but she turns to herbs first, for instance dismissing pesky but easily treatable headaches with peppermint.

“Just smelling peppermint essential oil has a cooling, anti-inflammatory effect,” she said. “It’s also great for digestion, and it’s energizing as well, so it’s nice to drink in the morning or after heavy meals.

“Common, culinary herbs are also very useful for day-to-day health,” she added. “One of the reasons thyme is so popular as an herb is that it helps us digest fatty foods and meat. It’s high in essential oils and can help fight respiratory problems and colds.”

She recommends making thyme tea, or steeping the leaves in a pot of water and throwing a towel over your head for an old-fashioned steam bath.

“I don’t get sick that often,” she said, “perhaps because I’m incorporating nourishing herbs into my life on a regular basis.”

With spring’s arrival, Zabel advises locals to be on the lookout for chickweed, a low-growing plant that in bloom has tiny white flowers that “resemble stars.”

“Chickweed is quite nutritious and you can eat it as a salad,” she said, before warning, “Just make sure you’re harvesting it from a place that hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals.” Chickweed is also good topically, said Zabel, “for relieving minor eczema, dry skin, and healing wounds.”

“Plants are so amazing, and even in the city they surround us everywhere,” she said. “That’s part of what I do — especially with urban dwellers — is to help people make connections with plants.”

Herbstalk will take place June 7 and 8 at the Center for the Arts at the Armory in Somerville.  For more information.