Medicinal Plants at the Ark Herb Farm
It's always a pleasure to discover something special in your own backyard. For me, it was the Ark Herb Farm, a 25-year old estate dedicated to permaculture, culinary and medicinal plant cultivation, and botanical research and education. Located in Santa Barbara de Heredia, Ark Herb Farm grows approximately 625 plant species on a rotating basis, from the familiar Genovese basil to the not-so-common toothache plant.
After walking into downtown Santa Barbara, I hailed a taxi for the remaining jaunt to the 17-acre farm. When I hopped out of the cab the first thought that popped into my head was, "what is that heavenly smell?" The air was lightly perfumed with an array of herbal scents -- basil was evident, but I also caught whiffs of rosemary and mint. There were several herbs that I couldn't even begin to identify.
I saw Agustin, the farm's manager, waving at me. We introduced ourselves before going downstairs to the herb preparation room. The scents were strong outdoors, but they were nothing compared to this confined space. I swooned in delight -- I am a hobbyist cook and there is nothing better than the smell of fresh herbs -- and stared at bunches of greenery placed around the room.
After a brief introduction to the farm, we headed outdoors and stopped in front of a Brazilian cherry tree, or guapinol in Spanish. I was familiar with its cultivation for upscale hardwood floors, but I had no idea it was also a medicinal plant. Agustin informed me that the tree's bark combats type II diabetes, the seeds help with anemia, and the sap alleviates respiratory problems and fungal infections. And we were only five feet into the tour.
As we walked the farm's trails, I tried to absorb the sights, sounds, and smells around me. The lemon balm plant, with its alluring scent, offers a natural cure for stomach upset. I learned that bush mint, a common plant in the wild, is not actually in the mint family since it contains no menthol. I gazed at the golden goddess tree that is widely used as a natural remedy for cancer. And I almost danced with glee in front of a wild cotton tree -- Agustin let me take home a fluffy pod as a souvenir -- and learned that its oil is used in fungal infections and its roots to induce labor.
We began climbing a small hill when a strong, wonderful smell assaulted my senses. I stopped dead in my tracks, and Agustin smiled; I think my strange reaction was more common than not. He led me over to a small plant and asked me to guess what it was using my eyes, not my nose. "Oregano?" I ventured. He asked me what it smelled like. "Cloves!" I cried, sure of that. Nodding, he told me that it was clove basil -- basil is in the same family as oregano, hence their similar leaves. Grabbing a leaf, he rubbed it between his fingers and offered it to me. Asking if I could taste it, he shook his head no -- the herb is too strong to eat straight. Sure enough, it smelled just like fresh cloves, and I began dreaming of how it would taste as a tea.
Continuing our uphill journey, Agustin reached down and plucked a leaf, this time encouraging me to try it. I had been sampling herbs during our entire walk, but nothing could have prepared me for this experience. As I began to nibble, a fizzy, Pop-Rock sensation filled my mouth and my heart beat quickly. He explained that it was the toothache plant, or Spilanthes oleracea. Used as a traditional remedy for throat pain and toothaches, the plant is also known to strengthen the immune system.
At the top of the hill, I turned around and gaped at the view. We were high on the mountaintop, and I felt like we could see all of Costa Rica. I could make out Puntarenas and the Pacific Ocean through the clouds -- not a bad view considering we were at least two hours away by car! Next came a very interesting part of the tour: common plants with little known uses.
We began with small impatiens flowers, which my neighbors had grown every summer at home in Philadelphia. Unbeknownst to me, these dainty buds can be rubbed on bug bites to relieve itching. The Wandering Jew or Inch Plant (Tradescantia zebrina), a common houseplant in North America, can also be used in the treatment of type II diabetes, menstrual cramps, hemorrhoids, and insect bites. I discovered that rosemary is also a hair strengthener in shampoo, an antioxidant, and a wound cleanser. The list went on and on.
Agustin explained that most medicinal plants are actually mildly poisonous -- their medicinal properties are the result of the toxins on the human body. For this reason, medicinal plant prescriptions must be followed closely. The Ark Herb Farm dedicates much of its time and resources to preserving medicinal plant traditions. These plants have been utilized for hundreds of years, and indigenous cultures have played an important role in developing their use. The farm is the largest of its kind in Costa Rica and is available for medicinal plant consultations and sales.
Deep in conversation, we walked around a corner and, looking up, my heart nearly leapt out of my chest. I found the most charming place on Earth: the Ark Herb Farm treehouse. Perched high above the ground, the treehouse was enchanting -- I felt like I had fallen right into a fairy tale. When we reached the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a stunning view of the Central Valley. I told Agustin that I'd go get my things; I was moving in.
We sat down to sarsaparilla tea and crackers topped with cream cheese and edible flowers. The orange petals tasted earthy and light-- the perfect complement to the crackers and tea. We chatted as we ate, and I never took my eyes off the view. Before departing, I thanked Agustin for the fun and informative tour and collected samples of a few medicinal plants to take home.