Her book completed and on its way to the publisher, Lisa Starner eagerly turned her attention to what she calls her outdoor sanctuary—close to an acre of land surrounding the midcentury modern ranch in Grand Rapids’ WestSide neighborhood that’s been in her husband’s family for over 60 years.
With the land’s different microclimates creating a diversity of plant life, Starner is able to carry on her work both as an herbalist and also provide food for her family. Here Starner, who volunteered at famed chef/restaurateur Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California and learned the art of eating while working on a degree in Nice, France, has numerous plots of plants including a woodland garden brimming with native plants and a front yard vegetable kitchen garden (called a jardine potager, in French).
“I look to the permaculture to inspire the way I care for my gardens and while not certified organic, I garden chemical-free,” she says. “We coined the term Urban Ranch when it became my full time live-work space. While still midcentury, my husband jokes that sometimes it resembles more of an urban farm.”
Beyond her Urban Ranch, Starner also forages for wild edibles and medicinal plants. Her business, Burdock & Rose Urban Apothecary, offers herbal CSAs, wildcrafted and culinary herbs and special orders. She also consults and teaches classes in wildcrafting and folk medicine.
“As a teacher, I am very hands-on so all of my classes approach learning about plants, herbs either in the kitchen or outside in the garden or foraging,” she says. “Like cooking, working with plants as herbal medicine is such a sense-full practice—requiring the use of taste, touch, smell, sight. It's important to me to engage these senses, as the plants communicate their properties in this way.”
Born and raised in West Michigan, Starner grew up within five minutes from Lake Michigan with a mother who was frugal and focused on good food (though Starner readily admits she consumed her share of fast food too). Her memories include canning the seasonal fruits and vegetables from the family garden and, as a latch key kid, Big Macs and boxes of Kraft.
College meant studies in anthropology with a focus in community health and her passion for food meant journeying to places where organic and local were the norm.
“My experiences in the kitchen and garden with children at the Edible Schoolyard were very powerful,” says Starner. “It prompted me to return to Michigan to pursue a career as an advocate for a local, good food agenda for Michigan. After an internship on an organic farm in Leelanau County, I used my experiences including a Masters in Public Administration to begin Mixed Greens, which has now merged with The Blandford Nature Center, a nonprofit that runs urban school gardens and kitchen classrooms for schoolchildren that teaches farm to school nutrition education.”
All these experience have helped Starner grow as an herbalist. For her, the value of native and wild plants living around us is an important part of the future of healthcare as well as local, organic food. She is part of the city’s food scene—the chefs, farmers, markets and activists.
“It is very important to me that we develop an economy which values local food production,” says Starner. “In the end, our health, environment and economy all depend on it.”
Indeed, though Starner believes in the value of conventional medicines, she also values learning about plants, their folk medicinal uses and sharing the knowledge with others as well.
“We have lost touch with the basics and how to use local plants for common ailments,” she says. “Across the world, cultures have used local plants as their primary source of healing and medicine. We've lost that science and art in the United States and I am one of the many people across the country working in my community to reconnect us with those traditional ways.”
Sidebar: Making infused honey
According to Lisa Starner, infusing honey is a very simple process involving little more than adding freshly gathered herbs and flowers to a jar, covering them with honey and then storing the sealed jars in a cool dark place. The infusion process takes a few weeks or so and during that time, the jars should be inverted every once in awhile to stir up the plant material. Because of its anti-microbial and preservative qualities, honey won’t spoil but there is a chance it might start to ferment (easily noticeable as the resulting carbon dioxide will cause the lids to bulge). That means your honey is turning into mead. If that happens, Starner recommends contacting a brew or hobby shop to find out how to continue the process safely.
Herbs that work well in infused honey include chamomile, lavender, rose, jasmine, orange flower, honeysuckle, lovage, bee balm, vervain, mint, sage, thyme and elderflower. Onion and garlic make an excellent base for a cough and cold syrup. Starner prefers using freshly harvested plants in season, but says both supermarket and dried herbs also work.
When ready, either strain the honey to remove the herbs or use as is. Infused honeys can be added to herbal teas to help support the body’s immune responses to illness and can also be eaten regularly as added immune support benefit.