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Gardening as Storytelling: Talking Medicinal Plants with Our Director of Horticulture

By High Line | September 26, 2019

This September, we’re celebrating the past, present, and future of medicinal plants. To supplement our tours, wellness fair, and educational signs in the park, we spoke with our director of horticulture about the what, why, and how of medicinal plants.

A white sign describing the plant yarrow.

One of our informational signs for medicinal plant month, illustration by Aleesha Nandhra.Rowa Lee

HIGH LINE

Okay, it’s medicinal plant month. This year we’re celebrating medically functional plants by acknowledging their ethnobotanical backgrounds. From what you’ve told me, I gather that you also practice or aware of herbal medicine, at least. I was wondering if you could talk about medicinal plants, why we’re highlighting them this month, how you use them in your own life, how we use them on the park, and so on.

ERIC

One of the questions the team had, and things that I’ve heard from other people in the department, is that we have a gorgeous set of gardens but can we find new ways of interpreting them? Lless from a simply aesthetics perspective, but more of an intersection of the urban agriculture movement, wellness and self-care, generally speaking. We get a lot of questions for the public like can I eat it? Can I do this? Can I do that? And recognizing this particular way that people were exploring plants in their own minds and the way they were interacting with them, it seemed like a critical time to do this.

Also, it’s been a real fascination of mine to engage in different kinds of storytelling, particularly to attract different audiences that are not necessarily the people who would come to the High Line for the pretty plants. And knowing that our designs are not going to change much (we can introduce new plants, but the goal is to maintain a level of consistency), how do engage people for whom a pretty garden may not have much relevance?

This, to me, was a good initial step to think through how to meet people halfway about where their interests, particularly when you’re talking about community-based interests that are very specifically about medicine, or about food, or holistic health.

A bee atop purple lavender

Pollinators love lavender.Sarah Stierch

Medicinal plant month also came out of some of the work we had done with the Community Parks Initiative. They made requests for specific workshops about pollinator plants, perennials, and medicinal and culinary things. We conducted a workshop there in Spanish on medicinal plants, not specifically just High Line plants, but we gave away kitchen herbs and things like that, because it was packaged as a part of a plant giveaway based around the things that they wanted.

Obviously we’re not growing a farm. But we can talk about medicinal plants through what we do now—how we can adapt pollinator, biodiversity, and conservation as a part of this simultaneous conversation around human need?

HIGH LINE

What about your own knowledge of medicinal plants?

ERIC

I love apothecaries. I love tinctures and teas. I am a strong proponent of valerian for disturbed sleep, as I’m constantly thinking about things and intrigued by things and stay up way past my bedtime reading Wikipedia rabbit holes. So nights when it’s a little bit harder to calm my brain down enough for sleeping I find that valerian is a nice gentle way to sleep.

A close-up of light pink valerian flowers

Valerian in bloom.Michael Pierce

HIGH LINE

Do you take a tea?

ERIC

I take a tea. I’ve been enjoying the Celestial Seasonings Sleepy Time blend with valerian because it’s one of my favorites in terms of taste. I like hops tea for the same reason. I’m a big fan of hops for all sorts of reasons, including the antimicrobial properties. I love lavender. I use it for when I mop my floors—I’ll add a couple of satchels in just to get that smell going. I’ll also sometimes throw some into a crockpot and just keep it at a slow boil.

HIGH LINE

Like potpourri?

ERIC

Yes, like a potpourri actually. And I have a tiny balcony garden that’s like two feet by two feet. I consistently grow calendula one) because it’s so pretty and two) because it’s one of the [best herbs for] skin that I find works for me. I have sensitive skin when it comes to certain allergies like dust. I get a heightened reaction to mosquito bites and bee stings. Calendula, for me, takes some of the edge off and is soothing. I’m also at that time of my life when so many friends of mine are having babies. [Calendula] is one of the things that I can recommend to expecting mothers as a product that you can use without having to worry about adverse effects of it. I’ve probably grown it in every garden with the exception of the High Line.

HIGH LINE

Do you turn it into a lotion?

ERIC

I process it down. I infuse it into wax and make a salve and I also drink it as a tea.

HIGH LINE

I remember last time we were chatting you were talking about your tours here and how they are very sensory. And I think you mentioned there used to be a sensory garden here, is that right?

ERIC

Yes, in the Pershing Square Beams, where we have lavender planted and anise hyssop. Those plants were selected specifically because they [provide] some sort of olfactory experience. It’s one of my goals to introduce more sensory plants. So that area isn’t just for kids, it, but has more ways for people to engage our plants beyond just visually.

Children playing on beams

The Pershing Square Beams in use.Rowa Lee

HIGH LINE

I was thinking how much of a challenge it is for education around gardens when the plants are all mixed together. It’s helpful for a garden lay person like myself for places to have a dedicated plot that clearly says this space is for these plants that smell delicious, or whatever it is.

ERIC

Those are great ways to learn about plants. I’m interested in exploring other ways that we can have signage up that is outside of the horticulture celebration, that could rotate for people who are obviously using a visual sensory experience. But also understanding different abilities of people and creating meaningful experiences for visitors that’s beyond just a sight one.

One of the things I was thinking about is a sound intervention with plants. I wonder if we could create some sort of musical composition with plants that would be based on, for example, recording the frequency of wind moving through a particular species, and then we can correlate that frequency with a musical scale. There might be a way to explore a plant or identify a plant without physically having to see it. I dream very big about these things. Part of the reason I incorporated a lot of scents into my tours is because people will recognize something in a different way.

I like tours to be conducted where I’m treated like a five-year-old, like a kindergartner. And you’re just experiencing things in the most tangible way possible. Whether it’s through touch, whether it’s through smell—these are all layers of learning. But I’m keenly interested in expanding out that sensory area, but also figuring out park-wide how we can create meaningful experiences for people with different abilities.

HIGH LINE

Thank you, Eric.

ERIC

Thank you!

Fall foliage

Fall foliage on the park.Rick Darke

As you see, medicinal plants do so much more than soothe a stomach ache or ease you to sleep. Through touch, smell, sight, sound, and taste, they provide a holistic definition of “health,” one that encompasses mental, physical, emotional, and communal well-being.

Visit our Celebrating Medicinal Plants page to learn more and download our information guide.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects.

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TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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