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3-course interview: Christiane Wurmstedt, herbalist

On Louisiana herbs, pickling and fermented foods

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Herbalist Christiane Wurmstedt teaches classes on fermentation practices and how to use local herbs for medicinal purposes at her Mid-City herb shop, Rosalie Apothecary (3201 Toulouse St., 504-488-4425; www.rosalieapothecary.com). As part of this month's Eat Local Challenge (www.nolalocavore.org), Wurmstedt hosts several classes at the shop and leads an herb walk Sunday, June 11 at the Sprout Nola garden (2600-2698 Conti St., 740-504-1181; www.sproutnola.org). Wurmstedt spoke with Gambit about herbs.

: What are some of the benefits of using herbs?

Wurmstedt: I first got interested in the benefits of herbs as medicine after college when I was living in New York. I have chronic skin issues, and I was on all these medications and nothing worked. [The treatment] was really just trying to mask the symptoms and not really figuring out the balance internally. Then I worked in this herb shop in the East Village and the owner became a real close mentor of mine.

  I believe that it's better to eat your medicine than to take it in a pill. I think people are becoming really interested in food and natural healing and herbal medicine because it feels natural to them, and people are questioning the overprescription of all medicine. All these medicines come with a million side effects.

  We have a chance multiple times a day to heal our body through food. Food can be energizing for us, but it also can be healing. Basically, it's good to eat what is grown locally because that is what's the freshest and most nutrient-dense. It's good to eat seasonally, which kind of goes back to the natural rhythms in our body. In winter, you eat more root vegetables or sweet potatoes, which have a lot of stored nutrients, and during the summer, you'll eat more cooling vegetables, like cucumbers or watermelons — foods that have a high water content and help you stay hydrated.

: What herbs and plants with health benefits are indigenous to southern Louisiana?

W: In Kitchen Medicine, a class we teach as part of our herbal medicine series, it's all about herbs that you have in your spice rack or grow in your herb garden. A lot of the reasons why humans have selected these herbs to cook with is because they're medicinally beneficial. Before the invention of refrigeration, salt helped to preserve food and prohibit the growth of bacteria. Herbs like thyme, sage, rosemary and garlic are really good when you have coughs, colds, the flu, sore throats and even lung infections. They're my personal defense when I'm coming down with something.

  What's wild and growing here right now are elderflower and elderberries. Both are really good for colds and the flu, and the berries are high in vitamin C. There's also ginger, which is great for the digestive system, and turmeric works as an anti-inflammatory.

  There's yellow dock root that grows around here, too. It's good for the skin and the liver, and it's also good for building up blood, for instance, in people that have anemia or low iron.

  There's an herb called Gotu kola that grows within the grass here that's great for brain function and for building up the elasticity of the skin and rebuilding connective tissues.

  Peach leaves are an old Southern remedy for dealing with grief. My teacher Phyllis Light use to say that when there's a death in the family, bring them peach leaves. But there's a disclaimer: You have to use them really fresh or dried, because when the leaves are slightly wilted they have some cyanide in them.

  Another thing that's flowering around town is the mimosa tree. It's really hard to get the flower dried and stabilized, but you can tincture them. It's really good for happiness and healing and just for combating feelings of depression and anxiety.

  New Orleans is its own little strange place, but across the lake things are a little less tropical. Wild cherry grows a little more north of the city or in Mississippi, and it's really good for coughs and colds and it's a bitter, so it's good for digestion as well. It's also good for arrhythmia, or to stabilize the heartbeat. Then there's the hawthorn tree that is more common up North. You can use the leaves and the berries for heart medicine and stabilizing blood pressure.

  Lemon balm is in the mint family and it helps release tension and is mood-lifting, too. It's antiviral, so it's good for combating the flu but also can be good for combating other viruses.

: What are the benefits of pickling and fermented foods?

W: Quick pickling is when you're using vinegar. It's good for preservation purposes, but you don't really get any of the probiotics. Fermentation is a really good source of probiotics, which is great for digestion. These days, digestion is linked to mental health, and probiotics are now flying off the counter and being prescribed as anti-depressants, which just goes to show how strong the link between the brain and the gut is.

  We teach fermentation classes at the shop. Basically, lacto-fermentation is anaerobic fermentation, so it means you make it without air. If you're making kimchi or sauerkraut, you mix cabbage with a lot of salt and make it so the air is not really touching any of the vegetables and then you let it sit for a couple of days. We also go over kombucha and homemade cultured dairy, like kefir and cultured butter. We also do a class on mead making, or honey wine, which a lot of people say was the original alcoholic beverage. We use local honey for that and that's always a really popular class.

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