These Plants are Teachers: Walking the Westgarden with Kumudini Shoba

by Marnie Jackson

On a recent late summer afternoon, Kumudini Shoba met with garden steward Abigail Lazarowski and me in the garden. I expected an interview, but what I got felt more like an introduction to old friends. We meandered slowly, meeting self-heal and angelica, apothecary rose and elecampane. We touched their leaves, knelt beside their roots, and studied the bees dancing among their petals. “What I do all day is help people restore balance within themselves, through getting to know the garden and its plants,” Kumudini told me. “Some people only know herbs as a capsule. Many people taking echinacea have never even seen an echinacea plant. I want people to meet these plants—these plants are teachers.”

Kumudini has been involved with the Whidbey Institute for many years, and planted many of the specimens in the Westgarden’s herbal border herself. She worked with former garden stewards Cary Peterson and Maggie Mahle, as well as Abigail, and continues to mentor, steward, and care for both our plants and our community knowledge.

“We started with what we call the apothecary herbs,” she said. “Here you see medicinal rose, medicinal lavender, and echinacea.” Wandering down the garden row, she listed names as quickly as I could record them. “Yarrow, culinary oregano, calendula, borage. This one is a bee attractor . . . oily, and good for everything.” Moving on, she introduced me to St. Johns wort, motherwort, and then anise hyssop. “It’s sweet, good in tea,” she said, encouraging me to smell the licorice-scented plant. “And over here is evening primrose.” The walk, and the list, went on. I met them all—looking, touching, and smelling their fragrant leaves and blossoms.

During our walk, Kumudini noted the liveliness of the Westgarden, and the growing numbers of flowers scattered among the vegetable beds. “I’m trying to keep as much bee forage in the garden as possible,” Abigail replied. The two then discussed the oat harvest (straw for tea, and milking tops for medicine) and calendula, expected to be harvested through October. We visited the ashwaganda beds, outside the fence, and met a beautiful herb hailing from India. “It can grow out here,” Kumudini said, “because the deer know it is not their food.”

Kumudini’s Sri Lankan family has a long “Vaidhya” (healer) tradition. A Master Herbalist, she has studied eastern and western herbalism. She has both an extensive Ayurvedic knowledge and a master’s degree in bio-organic chemistry. She has given a tremendous gift of time, wisdom, and mentorship to the Whidbey Institute over nearly a decade, most recently by hosting a seasonal Herbal Garden Wisdom series in our Westgarden for the past several years. The next course in the series is coming up on October 1.

“In the fall workshop,” Kumudini said, “we’ll talk about roots. It’s harvest time for the roots, where plant energy is stored, and we can balance ourselves with lots of root teas at this time.” She went on to explain that summer is a time to concentrate on flower remedies, whereas in spring the focus is on herbs which support with detoxifying and getting rid of winter’s accumulations.

When asked why she’s involved with the Westgarden, Kumudini shared her vision of a growing herbal apothecary and a budding generation of younger herbalists and gardeners. “My hope for this garden is that people will work with it, volunteer, and be involved,” she said. “An understanding of herbs is missing in this culture, and we need younger people to take this garden and make it their own.”

The three of us spoke of our vision for an expanded culinary, medicinal, and nutritional herb collection in the Westgarden, and the potential of that vision to be of service as a learning resource for the region. “This is the future here,” Kumudini said. “This kind of education is going to become very important. We have to protect the speciation, to have the wild species’ survive. It’s important to know these medicines are here, and how to grow and use them.”

“The garden teaches people real, deep respect . . . it’s a living thing, like us,” she shared. “My aspiration for this garden is that it become a place for young people to learn. This is the electronic generation. The earth can teach, if you sit with it.”

Kumudini’s ongoing commitment to this work has been a tremendous gift, and we at the Whidbey Institute are so grateful for her continued partnership and leadership in the work of nurturing our herbal garden and community.

To learn more about the Herbal Garden Wisdom series, click here.

September 21, 2016

People & Partners