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An apothecary at one's fingertips

Common Ground class teaches healthful uses of everyday herbs

"You can use calendula to soothe cuts and burns."

It was this idea from a University of California, Santa Cruz, professor about the healing properties of marigold extract that sparked Darren Huckle's interest in herbalism and botany in 1995.

Nearly 20 years later, it's Huckle that's doing the teaching, and this very idea is the subject of many of his classes, including "Top 10 Herbs to Grow." He'll be teaching this class at Common Ground Garden Supply and Education Center in Palo Alto on Saturday, May 10.

"The class is about the top 10 herbs to grow in a home garden and an introduction on how to use these plants to maintain and promote health," Huckle said. Ultimately, he aspires to familiarize people with the applicable properties of many common herbs.

Huckle completed his bachelor's degree at UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies with an emphasis on Natural History and Agroecology, has a master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches University in Santa Cruz, and a doctoral degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from Five Branches University in San Jose. He currently works as a clinical herbalist and acupuncturist and as a teacher of herbal medicine and nutrition.

"First and foremost, I like to do healthcare education ... through herbs and lifestyle," he said. In keeping with this interest, Huckle has been teaching "Top 10 Herbs to Grow" for close to eight years at both Common Ground and the UCSC Farm and Alan Chadwick Garden.

Patricia Becker, manager at Common Ground, has coordinated classes at the center for 21 years. She met Huckle at an Ecological Farming Class at the Asilomar Conference Ground in Pacific Grove, California, and found him "very inspiring." After Huckle's first class at Common Ground, she kept asking him back.

Becker often sits in on Huckle's classes, and said she likes that he brings in his plants and lays them out for his students.

"You can hold them, feel them and taste them," Becker said of the plants. She added that Common Ground aims to have all of the herbs students will learn about available for sale after the class.

Huckle has been an avid herb gardener for almost 20 years. But the study of common herbs for the remedy of everyday maladies is as old as humanity itself, or maybe even older, he said, remarking that many of our grandparents or great-grandparents would have used plants for healing in everyday life.

"Out of necessity, people knew ... how to use plants for particular maladies," Huckle said of our ancestors.

But in the last 80 to 100 years, much of our reliance on herbal remedies has waned under the onslaught of pharmaceutical treatments, Huckle said, expressing his desire to reintroduce the practice of herbal healing back into modern society. "Top 10 Herbs to Grow" is one of his favorite classes to teach, he said, because gardeners get to see their plants in a whole new light.

"People realize they have an apothecary at their fingertips," Huckle said.

Though his class is not a beginning gardening class, he finds that seasoned gardeners and herbal aspirants alike can learn much from its offerings. Most of the plants he covers are available at herbal suppliers, for one, and the majority are also well-suited to container environments, making it easy for anyone to access their healing properties.

"For example, thyme can be really useful in the early stages of a cold," Huckle said, noting the herb's diaphoretic quality that makes it ideal for soothing coughs and other respiratory inflammations. Making a steam inhale is one easy and effective way to use the herb, he said. Students will learn similar methods with other herbs as common and accessible as thyme.

Huckle also referred to the California poppy, which he reminds students not to pick in the wild, though it is completely legal and appropriate to harvest the plant in one's own garden. The poppy is a calmative, Huckle said, and can even relieve occasional insomnia. Huckle described the process of making an alcoholic tincture with a clear liquor and extracts from the plant, which he said is "not addictive or habit forming."

Huckle's current "herb of the moment" is the plantain leaf, which he said is "a wonderful herb for topical healing of cuts, burns and scrapes," and is even "internally very soothing to the digestive tract."

Huckle thinks that our bodies often "don't need the strong medicines" that we prescribe to them.

"We just need encouragement for our spirits," he said, "and to nudge the system towards balance and health," remarking on the powerful ways in which herbs can do just that.

One of the most memorable moments in Huckle's class, Becker said, was when he brought in stinging nettle and taught his students not to be afraid of the plant's barbs, but rather to embrace them as a potent healing agent. He showed his students how gently tapping the prickly stems against problem areas like sore knees or elbows works to stimulate painful regions and promote healing.

"It's like acupressure, in a different way," Becker remarked about the use of the commonly reviled plant.

"The realm of knowing plants ... helps our psyche enormously," Huckle said, speaking of the disconnect from nature that many people experience in today's modern age of technology and industrialization. Improving one's knowledge of plant life, he said, can in turn improve one's "sense of place, connection and community."

What: Top 10 Herbs to Grow

When: Saturday, May 10, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Where: Common Ground, 559 College Ave., Palo Alto

Cost: $42

Info: Common Ground or 650-493-6072; Roots of Wellness

Editorial Intern Lena Pressesky can be emailed at


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