In her bohemian yet tidy Somerville home, Steph Zabel recounts the journey that has led her off the beaten path—away from the laboratory, where her degrees in biology and horticulture could have taken her. But first, she pours a cup of herbal tea made from an aromatic blend of holy basil, lemon balm and rose petals.
“I made this blend for the winter because it’s so uplifting,” she explains. “A lot of people can get the winter blues, and certain herbs like these can help.”
Zabel is a practicing herbalist, botanical educator and ethnobotanist, and she talks about different plants with the same sparkle in her eye young parents may have while flipping through wallet photos of their children. She owns her own business, Flowerfolk Herbs, where she offers private counseling, workshops, classes and plant walks. In the front living room, where Zabel meets with her clients, a fire burns in a small furnace. Mozart records are tucked neatly next to heavy botany books and quirkier titles, like Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.”
When you have a knowledge of plants as broad and deep as Zabel’s, the world is your garden, and many of the herbs she collects are found, quite literally, where the sidewalk ends. Some of the most healing herbs and plants in cities are also the most familiar, she says, cropping up in cracks in the pavement or lining highway meridians. Zabel points to dandelions as an example of this. The layman may not know that the entire plant—from the roots to the flower—is both edible and nutritious. When spring rolls around, Zabel likes to put the yellow flowers in her salads.
Though these kinds of plants can pop up on even the most paved city streets, Zabel says to exercise caution. She doesn’t recommend harvesting near busy streets where pollution may be an issue. Zabel never harvests from public parks or private property, instead growing her herbs in two personal gardens in the front and back of her home, from which she collects herbs like St. John’s Wort, yarrow and calendula for her practice as well as personal use.
“The irony is that many of the plants people consider weeds are actually beautiful and healing herbs,” says Zabel. “They spend all this time working in the garden, when they could actually be harvesting free food.”
Zabel’s love for nature began during her childhood in South Carolina. She remembers visiting her grandparents’ nearby 10-acre property, her grandmother pointing out edible plants during their long walks together. In college, Zabel studied horticulture and biology. She would eventually go on to the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK to get her masters in ethnobotany (the study of the relationships between plants and people). Zabel could have easily spent the rest of her days in a lab, but she felt there was a better way to help people find herbal healing.
“I didn’t want to be studying plants in a purely intellectual setting anymore,” says Zabel. “I felt there was more.”
So she packed her bags and moved to Boston, where she apprenticed herself to a few herbalist teachers and worked at Harvard’s herbarium collections, where she helped curate plant specimens used for botanical research. As an unregulated profession, there’s no way to become a licensed herbalist in the United States. Zabel says they act more like health coaches than doctors and are unable to officially diagnose diseases.
“I feel like herbalism as a profession is old school in that way,” says Zabel. “You need to become an apprentice, and you form meaningful relationships.”
These days, there’s more on Zabel’s plate than just dandelions. Aside from her one-on-one herbalism practice, Zabel also offers seasonal six-week “Herbs for Everyday Living” classes. The spring semester begins on March 16 and addresses everything from herbal nutrition to aromatics, and students leave each class with their own salve, oil or tincture. In the summer, Zabel will co-host a women’s summer solstice retreat to Nantucket with her best friend and yoga instructor Jenn Pici Falk.
On top of all that, Zabel also founded the annual herbal open house Herbstalk, the first event of its kind in the Boston area. The gathering, which this year takes place June 6-7 at the Somerville Armory, brings together hardcore herbalists as well as dilettantes and curious community members for a weekend of classes on herbal and holistic topics. In the making of the event that has become a semi-institution in Somerville,
Zabel’s main goal was to bring her neighbors together over a shared interest in nature.
“There’s something for everyone, and everyone is welcome. We get beginners and more experienced herbalists,” says Zabel. “There’s even a small market for people who just want to shop.”
There must be something to that tea: Zabel shows no sign of slowing down. There’s even talk of a retreat to Iceland in the works. This herbalist seems clear-headed and excited for the future.
“I still feel like the world of plants is so vast and amazing that maybe it will keep me busy for the rest of my life.”