The lavender is waist high in Patricia Whitaker’s fields, and honeybees, drawn by the strong aroma, are buzzing fervently
around the amethyst buds looking for its nectar.
Whitaker carefully wades through the woody-stalked plants each morning, before the sun is too high, to gather the fragrant flowers for her work. “Their oil is strongest before it gets too hot,” she said. She pauses frequently to smell the small flowers, but Whitaker is looking for more than just a sweet scent as she carefully harvests the long stalks – she’s looking for medicine.
The lavender she cuts and dries will find its way into normal applications, such as neck pillows, sachets and soap, but it will also lend its essential oils to a number of salves and topical medicines Whitaker creates in her small shop in Custer.
Twenty-five years in the medical field led her to a lifetime love of herbs and a deeper understanding of the healing properties they possess, Whitaker said. “There are just so many ways you can use herbs,” she said. “It’s incredible.”
She began her research while working as a medical assistant and anticoagulation manager for a group of family practitioners.
A large part of her job was learning how drugs interacted with each other, and then relaying that information to patients as an educator.
“It’s a real balancing act,” Whitaker said. “There were so many things that could affect how anticoagulants work – prescription drugs, over the counter meds, herbal remedies, even vitamins – they all had an impact. As I researched, and saw these plant names appear in our pharmaceutical references books along with what they were traditionally used for, I just became more and more impressed with the healing properties of herbs.”
She decided to explore them for herself, and began by planting 17 varieties of lavender, which have been known to battle insomnia, anxiety and restlessness, on the hillside behind her home. “I harvested the first crop and was blown away with just how much I could do with it,” Whitaker said. “I really
feel like there’s a real place for the simple things in front line medicine. It’s going back to the old ways and what our grandparents knew.”
The hardy purple plant was just the start, though. Soon, as she studied her field guides and took classes from others versed in the ways of herbal medicine, she branched into other herbs and developed a laundry list of products for her small shop, including salves that help with burns and bee stings and an oil blend that Whitaker said speeds the process of healing in your muscles.
Whitaker said making herbal remedies has to be careful work, though, as people react differently to different herbs, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to misidentify a plant. “I grow almost everything I use, so I know where it comes from,” she said. “And I research everything before I try anything new. It’s
fascinating work. I love that I can help people with the things I grow in my yard.”